America's premier guru of gadgets is doing it again
| SAN FRANCISCO
A popular myth in Silicon Valley has it that not long ago, two friends and onetime enfants terribles of high tech, Larry Ellison and Steve Jobs, stood together surveying Oracle chief Ellison's $100 million, 23-acre Japanese-style imperial villa, the largest and most expensive property in Woodside, Calif., one of the most exclusive neighborhoods in the world.
As the story goes, Mr. Jobs, the cofounder and on again, off again, head of Apple Computer, took note of the 81,000 cubic yards of soil that had been rearranged to make way for the network of ponds, bridges, islands, waterfalls, and 17th-century-style teahouse structures, including the 8,000-square foot main house that Mr. Ellison was soon to preside over. He admired the more than 500 mature cherry, maple, and elm trees that the billionaire software king had imported to go along with the 700 redwoods and oaks already adorning the hills and dells. He marveled at the amount of stone - more than 5,000 tons of granite boulders had been brought in to recreate traditional Japanese-style gardens.
He counted the number of skilled craftsmen - some 50 in all - putting the finishing touches on the place that would ultimately take a decade to complete. But Jobs was unabashed about calling his longtime friend out on a certain issue. Why were the workers using metal screws in the fine woodwork? Before he allowed Ellison an answer that would have probably gone something like this - because we are near the San Andreas Fault and we are required to employ modern seismic technology - Jobs reminded Ellison that 17th-century Japanese craftsmen did not use metal screws. They used dowels of the purest and hardest wood.
The story is apocryphal but widely believed because it epitomizes Steve Jobs and his unflagging obsession with originality, engineering authenticity, and design detail. This obsession has been the sine qua non of Apple's operating systems and consumer electronic products for more than 25 years, even though these qualities haven't necessarily delivered superior market share - until now.
The myth also reflects Jobs's breathtaking audacity. Daring has helped him - a college dropout, an Apple founder at age 21, humiliated and sent into oblivion by the soft-drink executive he hired for company president - to return to rescue Apple from certain oblivion. It has helped him run two profitable companies that are changing entire industries - consumer electronics, music, and motion pictures. It has helped make him a icon of the world's technology, business, and, indeed, cultural frontier.
Nearly 30 years after he helped start the personal computer revolution with the introduction of the Apple as the "computer for the rest of us," Apple maintains a top spot in the top tier (along with Nike) in global brand recognition by fulfilling a consumer lust for cool with what Jobs likes to call "experiential tools." Apple's iPod digital music player has become such a "must have" item that it has staked out an 85 percent share of the global market. The new Mac Mini, which went on sale last week, has launched the company into another frontier - competitive pricing. It signals that the company is serious about turning out personal computers for the rest of us and adding to its current 5 percent global computer market.
Along the way, Jobs managed to found a company NeXT, whose work stations were so technically advanced they enabled the origination of the World Wide Web. And he purchased a marginal computer animation studio that now produces breakthrough feature stories: Its latest has been nominated for four Academy Awards.
Perhaps it was this vicarious sense of Jobs's pursuit of whole experiences - esthetic, functional, and spiritual - that drew more than 100 people to a downtown San Francisco sidewalk on a recent Saturday. Bundled against the cold, they stood outside the stainless steel and glass Apple retail store, cheerfully anticipating the moment when the doors would swing open and allow them to be among the first to purchase the newest offerings.
"This is like standing in line to get tickets for the Beatles," said Greg Penhaligon, a San Francisco software designer, who arrived at 7:30 a.m. to claim his place near the front of the line.
"It's more than that, more than of the moment," corrected Bonnie Boren, an artist who had driven south from Santa Rosa earlier that morning. "It's a religion and I am a follower. It's a lifelong experience."
Eleven days earlier and a little more than five months after e-mailing his employees to announce (on an iMac, he noted) that he had undergone surgery, Jobs delivered a robust, two-hour keynote previewing Apple's new line of software for managing digital photos, video, music, and desktop applications before thousands of acolytes at the Macworld show at San Francisco's Moscone Center. That portion was predictable. Apple had always featured straightforward software that was easy to use. What the crowd came to see was what those gathered outside the Apple store wanted to buy - the new 6.5-inch square and 2-inch tall $499 Mac Mini and the matchbox size iPod Shuffle, a $99 version of the market-dominating iPod.
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.
"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.