Jobs at WWDC: Taking the Stage With Chutzpah Only Apple Can Afford
Following his absence last year, Apple CEO Steve Jobs is ready to take the stage again at the company's Worldwide Developers Conference. It's a different world than it was two years ago -- the iPad has begun making its mark, Android has grown into a formidable iPhone adversary, and Apple has been throwing more elbows at anything that gets in the way of its vision of the future.
06/04/10 5:00 AM PT
Talk about dealing from a position of strength: Apple and Steve Jobs enter next week's Worldwide Developers Conference as kings of the tech industry hill, makers of must-have consumer products and generators of must-read technosphere headlines.
"Strength" might be the last word you would choose to describe Jobs if physical appearance alone is the standard. He strode onstage at this week's D8 Conference to the opening notes from "Got To Get You Into My Life," still looking understandably frail considering his health issues. And his voice remains a tad hoarse when answering questions from The Wall Street Journal's Walt Mossberg and Kara Swisher. However, the passion was still there as he argued with Mossberg over HTML5 vs. Flash and about writing "Thoughts on Flash." His voice can still reach the upper registers when he makes his key points:
- "Apple is a company that has succeeded by choosing which horses to ride technically, that have a future, that are headed up. Different pieces of technology kind of go in cycles. They have their springs and summers and autumns and then go to their graveyard of technology. We try to pick things that are in their springs."
- "If you choose wisely you can save yourself an enormous amount of work rather than trying to do everything." (Google, are you listening?)
- "That's what a lot of customers pay us to do, is to make the best products we can. If we succeed they'll buy them, and if [we] don't they won't. And it'll all work itself out."
Jobs dismissed his company recently surpassing Microsoft in market value, and he's right that it's not that big a deal from a Wall Street technical standpoint. But in the realm of media perception -- which is now vitally important in our info-saturated world -- it allowed Apple to enter a new, higher hype level. That's a significant development for a company that treats hype as oxygen and which has an enabling tech media with oxygen tanks always at the ready.
What, Me Worry?
The confidence that Jobs showed in his onstage answers reflects the knowledge that he can play that media like an orchestra full of Stradivarius violins (Stradivarii?). Apple's financials are blazing, the iPhone continues to grab mindshare if not market share from competitors in the smartphone market as it awaits an expected upgrade at WWDC, and the new iPad is soaring off Apple Store shelves at the rate of one every three seconds since launch, according to Jobs. In fact, it's likely that if you enter an Apple Store, you must immediately duck or else risk being decapitated by a razor-thin iPad flying off said shelves. And certain media companies continue to trumpet the iPad as their savior and are lining up to negotiate with Jobs' company about the cost of their content on the device.
And what about the controversies of the past six months? We all got an early peek at that iPhone upgrade thanks to a company employee taking it out for a test spin. He either left it in a bar or had his pocket picked, said Jobs. A district attorney continues to investigate. Either way, the man who got reamed out by "The Daily Show's" Jon Stewart for allegedly using a cozy relationship with police to search a blogger's home and confiscate computers didn't seem too fazed by the negative press.
The talk of restrictions on iPhone/iPad developers is more about what's uppermost on the minds of the aforementioned tech editors and bloggers. The consumers? Not so much. They just want their Apple products to work seamlessly and remain easy to use. That has always been Jobs' contention about the our-way-or-the-highway approach to developers, and he, the public at large and Apple investors don't seem too fazed by those headlines.
Jobs seemed to show the appropriate level of concern regarding the rash of suicides plaguing a Chinese plant for Foxconn, a partner helping to make Apple products. While arguing that the plant "is not a sweatshop," he also promised a full internal investigation.
Learning From History?
The only factor that Jobs can't seem to brush away is that pesky Android OS. It's shown rapid, Apple-like adoption since its launch last year, powering more smartphone competitors these days -- including the well-reviewed HTC Incredible. There are tablets heading your way that will be using Google's software platform; the five-inch Dell Streak with front-facing video camera hits Europe this weekend. So if the new iPhone does include a forward-looking camera that might make it more appealing for Web conferencing and business usage, Dell immediately has an alternative available.
But Jobs knows that the Streak won't see the kind of media coverage that the iPad gets, which goes back to the latest round of confidence -- hubris? -- being exhibited by Apple's CEO as he prepares for his keynote speech in front of his developers. This version of Jobs is content to take on Dell, Microsoft, Google, Adobe and certain bloggers. He'll write lengthy essays about why he hates Flash. If you're a tech blogger and you send him an email, he might just respond to you with a curt missive that will guarantee heavy traffic for at least a day. (That's opposed to AT&T's CEO, who might send you a cease-and-desist letter if you use the broadband capabilities his company is helping to provide to send him an email request for a response).
At the moment, Jobs and Apple can afford to ignore those -- like me -- who have written that the company is bearing a striking resemblance to the 1990s-era Microsoft. I have no doubt that Jobs is a good student of tech industry history and might know how to avoid the traps that Redmond found itself in the era of the open Web. He's admitted when his company has misfired from a product standpoint. Can he do the same thing when it comes to handling how his company is perceived by the same media that has helped build it up?
As it stands now, Jobs has captured the high tactical and strategic ground. He enters WWDC 2010 with the knowledge that it's good to be the king.
TechNewsWorld columnist Renay San Miguel started his journalism career with his hometown newspaper in Texas in 1979. He moved to television in 1985, anchoring, producing and reporting in Austin, Dallas and San Francisco before joining CNBC as a technology correspondent from 1997 to 2000. Following a stint with CBS MarketWatch, which included filing tech stories for the CBS Early Show, San Miguel joined CNN Headline News in 2001 as an anchor/tech reporter. He also contributed digital content for CNN.com. After his 2007 departure from CNN, San Miguel founded Primo Media and now freelances in television/online reporting and media consultation. San Miguel is host/managing editor for Spark360, which produces news-style paid content for SMBs distributed via branded Web video portals and social media platforms.