January 07, 2014

Books Step Behind the Curtain of Tech's Leading Companies

Nearly three years ago, I made myself a public promise to stop buying books, CDs, DVDs, or basically any form of media that took up any space. (See: Physical Media Has To Go. I'm Digital Only From Here.) With media stores on practically every platform, whether you prefer Apple's, Google's or Amazon's, and streaming entertainment available from Spotify, Netflix and the aforementioned three, you can get just about anything you want straight to your computer, phone or tablet. So my all digital diet hasn't slowed me down a bit.

The end of 2013 brought us an unusual array of tales on technology going behind the public faces of some of technology's biggest names, including Apple, Google, Amazon and the newest $30 billion kid on the block, Twitter. So I spent a good amount of the holiday break taking in stories, with their own various embellishments, covering the challenges of building a mobile operating system at Google and Apple, the executive tug of war and pivot of Twitter, the focus on design in Jony Ive's laboratory, and how Amazon has craftily executed on its plan to become the single store for everything under the sun.

Taking in the tales of Silicon Valley companies is something I'll likely never get bored of, even if I'm covering the news as a blogger, living the news as an employee, or enjoying the benefits as an end user. So to get all four of these books at about the same time is an embarrassment of riches.

As I've read each of the books on Google Play, I've tried to be a good Web citizen and provide a rating and a short review. If we're connected on Google+ and you look at the book on Play, you'll probably see my take. If you aren't, or we haven't synched yet, here's a quick run through of what I thought on each title. Each title links to Google Play, where you can pick it up too.

Hatching Twitter (Author: Nick Bilton)

Review: "Many characters needed to make a mere 140. Politics over tech, and very public... similar to many startups that aren't quite under the microscope."

Expanding: As someone who's covered Twitter as a blogger for some time and used the service extensively for five years, I had hoped for more insight into how the Twitter team took on technology scaling challenges, worked through product decisions and managed the fast-growing community. Bilton focused primarily on the office drama at the highest levels, and the day to day challenges seem to happen practically invisibly. Also, as noted in my review, as a veteran of some challenging political environments in startups, the executive turnover is not unique to Twitter, but it's unusual for it to become so public, or for the company to survive even with the infighting.

Jony Ive: The Genius Behind Apple's Greatest Products (Author: Leander Kahney)

Review: "Good story. Very one sided. Jony is an exceptional mind working on high quality and highly desired products. The author recaps the highlights and approaches the subject as if Apple is infallible and perfect, which get tiresome. Jony is made out to be a deity. The truth is already incredible. The fable is not needed."

Expanding: Jony Ive and Apple make incredible products. The iPod and iPhone and iMac are great examples of that. I liked Jony's origin story and how he was forged in the UK before making his way to Cupertino. What I liked less was the over the top, breathless deification of Jony that went well beyond what I felt ws necessary. It was so sugary, one had to put the book down every few minutes until you could get enough strength to start again. That's no slight to Jony or Apple, of course.

The Everything Store: Jeff Bezos and the Age of Amazon (Author: Brad Stone)

Review: "The best book on tech in 2013 An intriguing dissection and chronicling of a truly modern company's rise to market dominance."

Expanding: The story of Amazon was by far my favorite of this group. What's striking is the drive behind Jeff Bezos and team to take on incredible challenges, and just get it done. Amazon, through perseverance and ingenuity, skated through the hardest times in the Web 1.0 crash, and came out a world leader, starting new businesses and categories at a pace and scale hard to fathom. If you had to read just one of these four, I'd pick this one.

Dogfight: How Apple and Google Went to War and Started a Revolution (Author: Fred Vogelstein)

Review: "Good stories and current! Only a few obvious inaccuracies, but well intended."

Expanding: This was a fun one, as someone who prefers Android to iOS, but has been a heavy user of both. As someone who knows some more color to much of the stories, I found some of the author's summaries and shortcuts to simply be wrong. I was mostly willing to forgive that, considering the book was entertaining and insightful. I only hope the parts that I liked were true. As a Googler, it actually gave me more knowledge about individuals on the team and their own efforts that I didn't have before, so I appreciated that.

If you're like me, and you live and breathe technology and the Silicon Valley, these four books are a great way to go beyond the day to day headlines and clickbait you see on the "news of the minute" sites. If you are an entrepreneur or even just an office drone like the rest of us, you could learn something, be it the why, or the how, but you can't say any of these books left you more lacking for knowledge at the end than when you started. So check 'em out - digitally.

Disclosures: Yes, I work at Google. Google makes Android and Google Play, and could be a partner or competitor to Amazon, Apple, Twitter, Spotify or Netflix, depending on which product or feature you're thinking about.