Sunday, October 09, 2011

Walt Disney or Willy Wonka?

One of the many memorable moments in Steven Spielberg's E.T. prequel-of-sorts, Close Encounters Of The Third Kind, is the sight of Roy Neary, Richard Dreyfuss' character, going mad and sculpting a flat-topped mountain out of mashed potato.

This was, we later found out, because aliens had planted the image of the very real Devil’s Tower in Wyoming in Neary's mind and were calling him - and others – to assemble there.

I was thinking about this last Tuesday, just as the media - and I don't just mean the technology media - were getting excited about Apple's latest press event. Not knowing why (though they presumed it was the launch of the iPhone 5) they dutifully assembled at Apple's very own Devil's Tower, 1 Infinite Loop in Cupertino, California.

In the end there was no close encounter with anything other than a housekeeping update on what has made Apple the second-largest private company in the world (i.e. "We've sold lots of stuff, and Android is pants"), and that the iPhone 4 was to get a faster chip, a better camera and be offered as the iPhone 4S. Motoring experts will know that this approach is akin to putting 'Go Faster' trim on an existing Ford Fiesta to sell off inventory prior to a new model being launched.

The task of landing this non-news fell to Tim Cook, the company's new CEO who had, during Steve Jobs' various periods of medical leave, proven himself to be a steady-as-a-rock understudy. Since Jobs stepped down as CEO in August, Cook had eased the concerns of investors and employees alike. So, with the Apple obsessives entering overdrive and tech news websites offering Tweet-by-Tweet "live" coverage from the event - as if this made any more difference than more considered, consolidated coverage later - Cook, supported by assorted Apple upper managers, sought to make his mark.

The verdict was that, while Cook may be a worthy CEO, he is no Steve Jobs. 48 hours later, the copious outpouring of tribute and comment from journalists, peers and consumers at the news that Jobs was dead, underlined the point that there will probably only ever be one Steve Jobs.

Whatever your view about him, whether you saw him as the Da Vinci, the Walt Disney or even the Willy Wonka of his time, there is no doubt that the almost hard to take in explosion of media coverage marking his demise spoke volumes. People have likened it to the deaths of John Lennon or Elvis Presley. Actually, its volume has probably been closer to that which followed Princess Diana's passing. She was 'The People's Princess', but Steve Jobs was, we all know, just a Silicon Valley entrepreneur who, like many others in the Palo Alto and Mountain View districts, co-founded a computer business in a garage. Less than 30 years later - with most of the growth within the last decade - he'd turned it into a global corporate behemoth, not just a technology giant.

I'll spare the whole chronology - you'll have read it anyway in great detail since Thursday. The bottom line is that Jobs' ascendance to world-revered icon - credited with single-handedly transforming global culture through little more than silicon, software, good industrial design and an uncanny knack of knowing how to make existing technology both easier to use and desirable to those who'd otherwise be indifferent towards it - took just 13 years.

The original iMac presented the foundation: it challenged the idea of what a home computer not only should look like, but what it should do, and even who should own it. Add in easy-to-use software for otherwise professional applications like movie editing, add in connectivity for digital cameras, and the digital lifestyle for the non-geek was ready to go. Think back to that moment in 1998 when the iMac appeared in all its fruity-coloured versions, and then speed through the arrival of the iPod, iTunes, more iMacs, iPod Nano, iPod Shuffle, iPhone, iPod Touch, iPad to the iPhone 4S, and you see something which can only be regarded as breathtaking. This is the same company which, in 1998, was regarded as a niche player with a tiny market share.

Apple's progress, from once bankruptcy-threatened cult-in-waiting, to the world's eighth most-admired brand and a company with more cash than the US Federal Reserve can only be credited to one man. No matter what contribution Jonathan Ive's brilliant design has made, Phil Schiller's smart marketing or Tim Cook's solid operational management as COO, not to mention the tireless involvement of countless engineers and anonymous assembly-line workers in China, Apple today - the phenomenon that Apple has become - is down to Steve Jobs.

His instinct, as to what you and I as consumers would want, was the key. There were PCs before the iMac; there were MP3 players before the iPod; there were tablet devices before the iPad; there was music management software before iTunes. Jobs made them both attractive, aspirational and desirable, but also made them indispensable. Even when he apparently reluctantly opened iTunes up to the Windows PC, he was - like extra-terrestrial telepathy - planting the seeds that would hold consumers dependent on the Apple brand for their next generation of MP3 players and, eventually, mobile phone.

We all know the iPhone is lousy as a phone, but we make allowances because it does so much more which works well, which makes it satisfying to use - even fun - and has clearly been thought through, inside and out, inception to consumption. The Apple environment is a clever one - the blog post I write as a note on my iPhone over breakfast, is enhanced on the iPad while I fly across the Atlantic, to be rendered and published using the MacBook on arrival at the hotel. Pity me for having shelled out three times for the same functionality, but in having the vision and shear bloody mindedness to insist he knew what we'd happily fork out for in the pursuit of our digital lifestyles, Steve Jobs was an unparalleled genius - magician, vaudeville showman and street corner dime-bag pusher rolled into one.

What happens next for Apple is down to others. It's Jobs' legacy for them to enhance, maintain or ruin. If nothing else, the 13 years since he unveiled that very first iMac have been remarkable, breathless and deliciously good fun to have witnessed and, let's face it, bought into. At a premium, of course.

Steve Jobs

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