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22 Sep 2005 12:03
In a parallel world, Steve Jobs could have been a poker player with a reputation as a cool hand. After three decades at the top table of technology, all the required skills are there: patience, self-belief, bravado—and, most importantly, the ability to ride a streak of luck.
“Some people thought we got really lucky with the iPod, and we did,” says Jobs.
But, he adds, real winners don’t just enjoy the breaks, they exploit them.
So far, the competition is not doing a great job. Apple’s hand in the home computer market might be weak, but it holds all the cards in digital music. Thanks to phenomenal sales of the iPod over the past few years, the company is at an all-time high and its dominance of music downloading is almost total. More than six million iPods were shipped in the past three months, underpinned by a pervasive marketing campaign and growing consumer awareness. No wonder, then, that Jobs is in confident mood.
Dressed in the regulation outfit of a Californian intellectual—black, black and more black—he is upbeat about the future of Apple, the company he founded almost 30 years ago in his parents’ garage. He believes that central to the company’s success is Apple’s vision—his vision—of making technology simple.
“There’s a very strong DNA within Apple, and that’s about taking state-of-the-art technology and making it easy for people,” he says.
Jobs’s targets are busy, modern consumers; “people who don’t want to read manuals, people who live very busy lives”.
There are certainly a large number who buy into that concept. But while many are drawn in by the slick advertising and fashionable branding, those who stick around are often motivated by the man himself. On stage, and with an audience to play with, Jobs is the ultimate salesman. His speeches are famous for generating the “reality distortion field”, a sense of devotion to the cause that most rival technology bosses would kill for.
Some fans will go wild for each new product that Jobs delivers, and his enthusiasm and charisma pour out across the stage.
In person, though, he is quiet, determined and relatively inscrutable. It is as if the qualities that make him a great showman turn inside out when put under the magnifying glass; a bluff worthy of any hardened Las Vegas gambler.
Despite his value on stage, Jobs did not make a keynote speech at Apple’s annual Paris expo earlier this week, and for one simple reason: there was nothing new to announce. The company had unveiled its autumn product, the iPod nano, two weeks before. The other big news, the iTunes-compatible ROKR phone from Motorola, is being re-aligned as little more than a test run. Jobs blames speculative media interest for imagining it was anything more than “dipping our toes in the water”.
Apart from nano—which, as a replacement for the best-selling iPod mini, is a major move for the company—Apple’s cupboard is fairly bare. It is a low point in the product cycle, with much of the behind-the-scenes work focusing on the Intel-based computers due next summer. But new iPods are on the way, and Jobs promises “a lot of new things in the pipeline”.
This relative downtime is giving Jobs a chance to promote Apple itself, and the company’s wider beliefs. It is an important time: while the long-standing computer business remains just as important as the newer focus on music—he wonders whether anyone would ask which of his children was more important to him—it is clear that Apple is changing.
At the centre of it all, Apple is now a lifestyle brand, rather than a technology company. Each iPod comes inscribed with the words “designed in California”, a seemingly throwaway statement that gives a fundamental insight into the company’s outlook.
The message is straightforward: we are innovators, we are cool, we are friendly. It’s an extended new age mantra that betrays Apple’s west coast roots and has proved crucial to its image—both good and bad—over the years.
Remaining friendly in the eyes of consumers is at the heart of Apple’s motivations. Green issues, for example, are becoming a real concern. With so many units being shifted across the world, like many other computer firms, Apple has come under increasing scrutiny about its environmental policies. Jobs is clear that reducing the footprint of products is important, but it should, he feels, be put into context.
“One automobile is, I’m sure, greater in impact than 100Â 000 iPods,” he says. “The one part of consumer electronics that you have to worry about is the battery. I’m glad we got rid of cathode ray tubes, because they were horrible, full of lead. Flat displays are much better. The batteries ... you have to watch. But you can bring your iPod into an Apple store and get it recycled, and we run a battery replacement scheme.
“Even our packaging reflects these concerns. It is dramatically smaller these days, and we have removed styrofoam and such things.”
The image might be soft, but it is clear that nobody gets to be the chief executive of such a large company without a killer instinct. Part of the Jobs mystique is that he simply doesn’t give up. He bounced back from a boardroom fight that saw him leave the firm in 1985, returning triumphantly in 1997.
He also bounced back from a financial and commercial precipice, launching a series of iconic products including the iMac and iPod. And he even bounced back from death, beating a rare form of pancreatic cancer last year. Ease of use might be in Apple’s DNA, but there is grit and determination in there as well.
There is a cruelty, too, about the dismissive way in which the company treats its fresh lineup of competitors, or the way Jobs relates to those he disagrees with. Part of it is executive braggadocio, of course, but there are clearly subjects—and people—he doesn’t like.
Questions about his feelings on hackers attempting to “improve” Apple’s operating system, for example, are batted away with a wide-eyed stare. “You’re asking me whether theft is a good idea?” he responds, incredulously. “If people want to change our software, then they should come to work at Apple ... We might choose to give it away, but it should be our choice to make.”
It’s clear that ownership is important to Jobs. He might not own Apple, but as the public face of the company he does lay claim to the firm’s image, and understands the necessity of being seen as “the good guy”. For instance, when it is suggested that record labels might look to increase their income by bumping up the price of iTunes downloads, he brings in the spectre of illegal downloading.
“Music companies make more money when they sell a song on iTunes than when they sell a CD,” Jobs says. “If they want to raise prices, it’s because they’re greedy. If the price goes up, people turn back to piracy—and everybody loses.”
This is how things work: with a swift shuffle, he asserts Apple’s ownership of the music download market, and distances it from the messy decisions. It is clear, he says, that a price bump will be a terrible move made by a music industry only interested in short-term profits.
It is the kind of subtle statement that suggests Jobs would be a shrewd politician—something that has been suggested, and his links to the Democrat party in the US are good: last year he offered himself as an advisor to the campaign to elect John Kerry as president, while former vice president Al Gore is on Apple’s board.
But even if Apple’s stereotypical users—young, fashionable and metropolitan—are sympathetic to his personal views, he insists that his politics aren’t important to the company’s strategy. “We’re not trying to sell belief—we’re just who we are. Apple has values we care about; Apple cares about tolerance. We are not a political company, but a company with a set of values.”
And over the years, Apple has had the perfect foil for those values, in the guise of the unfriendly giant Microsoft. It is something that has benefited the Californian firm, even if it would be loathe to admit it. As the perennial underdog in a round of high-stakes poker, it has learned how to play its cards with enough skill to survive. Now, entering into new markets, Apple has discovered that it’s a much better player than it ever realised.
Not even Jobs would claim that this was winning a 30-year-long bet. But it is a gamble which is paying off, for now at least.
Highs and lows
1976—Apple Computer formed by Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak
1984—Apple Macintosh launches, using a graphical interface that becomes standard on home computers
1985—Jobs forced out of Apple after a power struggle with John Sculley
1997—Re-installed as chief executive
1998—Apple releases the iMac
2001—iPod is launched—20-million sold in four years
2004—Jobs recovers from pancreatic cancer after surgery - Guardian Unlimited Â
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