The legendary career of the Mac and iPod impresario may have culminated on October 12, the day he made online video viable. But what will become of the Cult of Mac now that Apple has become as ubiquitous as McDonald's?
Sure, former General Electric CEO Jack Welch has had a couple of best-selling books, and Bill Gates may have ended up with Time's much-coveted Man of the Year in 2005 for his superman efforts in tackling malaria, but few businessmen have captured the public's consciousness as effectively as Steven Paul Jobs of Apple Computer and, now, Disney. Few American CEOs are idolized, much less made the central subject of two movies (Pirates of Silicon Valley and Triumph of the Nerds) and more than 10 by and large fawning books that herald his genius. Most recently, Jobs has managed to do for portable music what he did for personal computing in the 1980s -- make it not merely practical but cool.
Jobs, now 51, wasn't supposed to end up at the pinnacle of a Fortune 500 company (let alone two). The story of how he launched a technological revolution from the once humble but now proverbial Silicon Valley garage with erstwhile partner Steven Wozniak has become a legend, an illustration of the American Dream in action. (Wozniak, like Jobs, left Apple in the 1980s, but his subsequent business efforts bombed, and he has faded into geek obscurity, idolized only by a handful of hard-core nerds who regard him and not Jobs -- who after all is a marketing man -- as the genius behind the Apple cult.) Delve deeper into the Jobs story, however, and it looks less exemplary. Jobs was a callous, obdurate young man who flirted briefly with living in hippie reverie in the mountains of India, before returning home to form the computer company that became eponymous with cool in the early 1980s. Whilst Tandy and Radioshack's image was bland, Jobs quoted Bob Dylan at shareholder meetings (he even dated Joan Baez for a time), hand-delivered his computers to rock stars and allegedly assessed prospective Apple employees for their image and attitude, as in the television movie Pirates of Silicon Valley, which depicted Jobs telling a suited, middle-aged applicant, "You don't belong here." Jobs was slated to become Time's Man of the Year in 1982 until sources within Apple painted an unflattering portrait of him (Macintosh engineer Jef Raskin famously proclaiming that Jobs would have "made an excellent King of France"), and he lost out to the personal computer itself.
Eventually Jobs's reputation would soar because of his association with Macintosh, the machine Newsweek editor Steven Levy has called "the computer that changed everything." Never mind the fact that Jobs had at first binned the project: only after Apple's board forcibly removed him from his pet project, the Lisa, an expensive business-market computer (it cost almost $10,000 in 1983) now regarded as one of the company's biggest blunders, would he become connected to the Macintosh and claim credit for it, pushing its actual inventor, Raskin, out of the spotlight.
In 1985, Jobs was booted from Apple after clashing with his anointed successor, former Pepsi CEO John Sculley, (Jobs had lured him to Apple with the now immortal sales pitch, "Would you rather spend the rest of your life selling sugared water or would you rather change the world?) and spent the better part of the next decade wasting Ross Perot's money at NeXT Computer. NeXT's technology, which featured support for graphics and audio within e-mail and technologies such as Ethernet ports, that have become part and parcel of computing today, was supposed to be the next big thing, and computer scientist Tim Berners-Lee, regarded as the father of the Internet, developed the first version of the World Wide Web on a NeXT machine. But like Lisa, it was overpriced for its time and never found popular acceptance. Jobs's fortuitous involvement with animation studio Pixar, however, kept him afloat, and in 1996, he returned to Apple in time for the candy-colored iMac, which would shake up a design-challenged PC industry in which style meant black or beige, and the iPod, which moved music to computers and launched an industry that still hasn't found its ceiling.
As significant as the Macintosh or the iPod may be, neither of these may constitute Jobs's most important contribution to our culture. Instead, it may be his ability to bridge between the two vastly differing fields of entertainment and technology, smoothing the way for portable digital video on demand, that makes up the third and most significant act of Jobs's career. For years, the portable video market tantalized companies like Singapore's Creative Technologies and Korea's iRiver, which sought to be the first to capitalize on the inevitable convergence of portable music and video. Yet in a pre-You Tube world, what prevented convergence was a lack of content to spur consumer demand for iPod-like portable-video players. Music videos then available for download were largely only on much-maligned P2P networks, and the act of ripping video from DVDs was complex enough to put off even self-professed geeks. It was not dissimilar to the pre-Apple era, when Tandy and Commodore had their heyday and a young Jobs was catching his first whiff of opportunity.
Despite his 2004 quip that "video isn't the way to go", Jobs introduced the video iPod on October 12, 2005, garnering a Time cover. More important, he debuted the iTunes Video Store. With the U.S.'s largest online music retailer (some analysts peg Apple's market share at a Microsoft-esque 82 percent) at his disposal, Jobs was able to provide a proven platform that made content both easily downloadable and profitable. This allowed Jobs to do what no CEO before him could: convince Disney to retail hit television programs online, beginning with ABC's Lost and Desperate Housewives.
Because Jobs had already become a media titan after Pixar's blockbuster hits, he was able to reach across a seemingly insurmountable abyss between media conglomerates and technology. Jobs also used his leverage and charisma to charm major labels into making music videos legally available for mainstream consumer download. Thus single-handedly he was able to bring the online video market into existence when it seemed it would forever remain on the horizon. And thanks to Apple's Fairplay digital-rights-management software, videos and music purchased from Jobs's music store would be playable only on his digital media players, ensuring a near monopoly for Apple in the industry.
While factors such as increased broadband usage and also helped spur the video revolution, Jobs's October 12 coup, by providing a medium and marketplace for clips, would open the floodgates for grassroots and professional video makers, providing the impetus for the rise of video-sharing giants YouTube and (to a lesser extent) Google Video. Google Video even has a customizable "down to iPod" feature in its store.
Now the would-be ascetic hippie had become the essence of cool. What computer does Gisele Bundchen choose to be photographed backstage with? A MacBook. While Sim Wong Hoo scrawled his signature onto his Creative flops, Jobs enlisted Irish rock gods Bono and the Edge to help him out whilst hanging out with Madonna to promote his ROKR mobile phone. But Jobs's coups have come at a price. Apple was able to survive the torrid 1990s when Microsoft was in the ascendant because of its infamously fanatical community of users. However, these devoted customers are increasingly becoming alienated by Apple's now-found popularity. On the numerous online Cult of Mac communities one can find posts about the good old days when Apple wasn't as popular. For example, when O'Reilly books editor Brian Sawyer noted on his blog how geeks were switching away from Apple to Linux, he drew comments like "Apple is too popular and successful now for [longtime Macintosh users] to associate with. Just as the vast majority of PC users pick Windows *because* everyone else uses it, Pilgrim and Doctorow, and other intellectuals alike, avoid it for the very same reason."
Once Apple reveled in the counter-cultural role of being a rebel, most famously with its use of John Lennon and Gandhi in its "Think Different" advertisement campaign. Apple made people feel that they were buying into an exquisite secret society of computer nirvana. It cleverly associated itself with creative artists and used higher price points to make its machines seem elite. But now it's starting to seem not all that different. Not only is the brand surging in popularity (despite complaints of heat problems and a battery recall for its laptops, Apple was recently able to announce its second-best quarter ever) but its products are beginning to resemble its PC competitors. When Jobs announced in 2005 that Apple would use chips from Intel, a company that Apple created ads to mock in the 1990s, cries of "sell out" came from longtime users. The iPod's halo effect, whereby its popularity lures users to other Apple products, may also have served to water down the brand's appeal to those who supported Apple in its darkest times. As Apple's "Think Different" ads are replaced by a campaign urging ordinary people to "Switch," former Mac cultists may just take the company up on that advice.
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Kristiano Ang has written cover profiles of Jimmy Cliff and Avril Lavigne for Vainquer magazine. This is his first article for PopMatters.