America's premier guru of gadgets is doing it again
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To many, these two products were the most important releases from Apple in nearly a decade. Though less robust than their older cousins - the iMac G5 desktop and iPod - they represented a hoped for Apple revolution, one that Apple romantics, of whom there are legions, might call a Reversion Revolution.Skip to next paragraph
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"As I watched Steve deliver his latest keynote, I was reminded of the reasons I came to the Silicon Valley," says longtime friend Roger McNamee, a venture capitalist who helped launch dozens of technology companies. "What's so cool about him is that he is totally consumed by the experience someone has with his products. This is uncharacteristic of his peer group."
Mr. McNamee offered more praise: "Vision is easy. But Steve has much more. He has courage. He rejoins his old company when it's on the verge of bankruptcy [in 1997 and took a $1 annual salary.] He turns out the iMac and turns the place around. And then, when the downturn hits the Silicon Valley, he increases the R&D budget from $350 million to $500 million."
Research and development are like seed planting. Paul Saffo, a director of the Menlo Park-based Institute for the Future, a technology forecasting firm, says Apple's two new slimmed down products are the newest harvests in what will be an array of hand-held devices catering to the demand for digital entertainment and serious computations. "Apple has been cool all along," he says, praising Jobs's talent for including "little details," in Apple products. "The public wasn't. But now because of Apple, the public has become cool."
Since they began selling products more than 25 years ago, Jobs and company had resisted price wars with competitors. Likening Apple products to BMWs or Rolex watches, they had been able to charge premium prices for arguably premium designs and functionality. Exclusivity has always been part of the Apple cachet, and many would argue, part of its market-share detriment - a mere 5 percent compared to nearly 95 percent for Microsoft's Windows. But with the Mac Mini and Shuffle, Apple signaled it was combining its design prowess with low prices to try to pull in some Windows converts.
"This was in keeping with where the whole pricing of the computer industry is headed," Mr. Saffo says. "Lowering prices is like an iceberg breaking off a glacier. Personal computers are now commonplace utilities. We are now in the mainstream era of consumer electronics."
Analysts see where the "cool" trend is once again heading - toward smaller, faster, cheaper. But they see a parallel trend, too: toward more personalized digital devices, something Apple has always emphasized. Saffo also sees the potential for Apple to break away from computer manufacturing and join with a company such as Sony to become a pure media firm - providing that "Steve's ego would allow him to be part of anything."
McNamee isn't making any big forecasts. He's more interested in perspective. "How many CEOs do you know who are running two profitable companies - no, industry-changing companies at once?" he asks, citing Jobs's other job as CEO of Pixar, the successful computer-animation company that produced "Toy Story," and most recently "The Incredibles."
In order to have a resurrection, you have to have a fall, and Jobs has had his share of those, too. Two decades ago, during a power struggle, he was ousted unceremoniously from Apple. At the time, many in the company privately rejoiced, saying they were happy he had taken his take-no-prisoners arrogance out the door.
When he returned 10 years later, they said the arrogance and truculence had returned. At one point, he declared the developers of the Macintosh to be his favorite pirates, hoisted a skull-and-crossbones flag over the team's development building, and alienated three fourths of the rest of his employees.
Yet he has softened and so have many of them. At the 2005 Macworld keynote, he thanked all his employees and their families. When it came time to display a new desktop feature - a quick and easy to summon thesaurus - he chose the word "Love."
This was not lost on McNamee and others. "He's matured, inevitably. We all have," said the venture capitalist. "He's got kids and he's created a remarkable legacy. I truly believe that we don't have anyone like him in our time."
One of the motion pictures nominated for this year's Oscars is "The Aviator," portraying Howard Hughes as a brilliant but brash young visionary, ruthless entrepreneur, irrepressible champion of aeronautic design, test pilot, Hollywood filmmaker, and ultimately paranoid madman. Surely, some time down the road a film biography of Steve Jobs - who, like Hughes, put his stamp not only on an industry but a culture - will be made. The only unknown at the point is the ending.