iPod, Therefore I Am
By MICHAEL WOLFF Vanity Fair April 3, 2006
After 30 years as an outsider, Apple founder Steve Jobs is the white-hot center of mass-market media. His obsession with design is now America's: the machine has become the message. With the $7 billion Pixar deal, Disney-kingdom of content-is Jobs's new playground. How did he turn the tables?
The rise of Steve Jobs in American business life has always been a story about exceptionalism. He's been the alternative. The other. The anti-Gates (with Gates representing the triumph and profitability of hegemony, constancy, mediocrity). Jobs is the artiste as businessman-famously odd, difficult, flaky, rude. His businesses, even his successful businesses, have been, in a sense, unbusinesses. The formative point about Apple, which turns 30 this month, is that most people didn't want one. From an adult-company perspective-that is, a Windows perspective-Apple has been a child's company, a Peter Pan company.
But now it turns out that Jobs is not marginal, or eccentric, or even fanciful at all. His is the at-one-with-the-American-consumer golden gut. He's the ultimate media guy. Everybody wants to know what Steve knows. Everybody wants to know what Steve wants. Whereas his evil twin, Bill Gates, his epic rival, his Moriarty, finds himself smacked upside the head by every Internet entrepreneur and, often, as flummoxed by the direction of modern life and technology as everybody else.
This goes further. For most players in the media business, it's all about blindly groping through a bollixed up, destabilized, haphazard, random world. Nobody can see what's going on. If you survive, you survive by luck and chance (and always with diminished prospects and a lagging share price). Steve, however, proceeds with the greatest assurance and aplomb and ever increasing value. He has special radar. He's the official One-Eyed Man.
But further still. With some perspective-and 30 years will do-it turns out that in critical ways the media business is such a tectonic-plate- shifting, existentially precarious place because of Steve Jobs. What Jobs has been doing these last 30 years, while everyone thought that all he was up to was his specialized, la-di-da stuff, was literally re-inventing, revolutionizing even-thinking truly differently about-every aspect of the media business.
The bite-size and broken-grid elements of nearly every printed page owe themselves to the Macintosh. The plasticity of pictures, of video, and the ease and economy with which the visual world can be manipulated, in which everybody becomes his own director, in which the barrier-to-entry costs fall every day-the full effect of which has yet to be felt by the media industry-is a Mac by-product. The transformation (or death, depending on your point of view) of the music business is Steve and the iPod-and, shortly, the iPod will do for video what it's done for music. And this is not to even mention the personal computer itself, whose very look and feel and identity and fundamental metaphor come from Jobs (albeit channeled from Xerox PARC). Everywhere, Jobs has been helping media consumers take media away from the media business itself. And now, with uncertain, ostensibly modest purpose ("We're really buying into Bob's vision," he said about Disney C.E.O. Bob Iger), he's entered Disney as its largest shareholder and most eminent figure.