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Goodbye geekiness, hello hip

Apple has long had its loyal fans but the iPod and iTunes have turned the struggling visionaries of `plug in and play' into the arbiters of techno-chic

By Randall Stross  /  NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE

Apple Chief Executive Officer Steve Jobs shows the new iPod shuffle MP3 player at the 2005 Macworld Expo in San Francisco, California, last week. Jobs announced several new products including the new Mac Mini personal computer starting at US$499 and the iPod shuffle for US$99.

PHOTO: AFP

When TV Guide updates its 1999 list of greatest commercials of all time, I must root against the current occupant of the No. 1 position: Apple Computer's 1984, broadcast for the 1984 Super Bowl. The ad's indelible image -- a sledgehammer thrown at Big Brother -- makes good art for a museum installation. But for transcendent greatness in the real world, the top spot should go to a more recent instance of Apple-sponsored genius: the iPod commercials. (It doesn't matter which one.)

Their shimmying and shaking have firmly established the iPod as the icon of the dawning digital lifestyle and sped 10 million units out the door. Without saying a word, the commercials present viewers with a choice: orgiastic boogaloo-ing with the in crowd, or standing forlornly out of the picture. And now the price of admission is just US$99.

In the weeks leading up to the Macworld Exposition in San Francisco last week, some of the Mac faithful expressed concern that the iPod's phenomenal success was diverting the attention of Apple's chief executive, Steve Jobs, away from the Mac. Apple announced record quarterly earnings last week; the results showed that the iPod and iTunes accounted for almost 40 percent of the company's revenue last quarter, up from 15 percent in the quarter a year earlier. Whatever the percentages, children need to be reassured that Dad loves all equally. But the iPod has shown Jobs new ways to think about Apple's future, which arguably has never looked better.

`The only asset that matters'

Consider some competitors. Microsoft has a near-monopoly on the basic software used on the hardware owned by most people, enabling the company to extract what is basically a head tax. Google has a near-monopoly in the digital library business, which enables it to do very well with advertising that monetizes eyeballs. But Apple has an absolute monopoly on the asset that is the most difficult for competitors to copy: cool.

Paul Saffo, research director of the Institute for the Future in Menlo Park, California, says emphatically, "Hipness is the only asset that matters." Jobs had not been able to leverage it in traditional computers because technology in crucial areas had not matured enough to make cool affordably practical on a mass scale. To the extent that cool is based on exclusion of the uncool, Apple was too hip for its own long-term health.

With the introduction of the iPod in 2002, however, Jobs offered a product that combined cool with inexpensive, truly personal computing that fits in a pocket. Thanks to technological progress, Jobs now has at his disposal ridiculously cheap processing and memory, which render meaningless the distinction between computer and peripheral. To paraphrase Sun Microsystems, the peripheral is the computer.

Saffo points out that the iPod and its competitors use identical hardware components. What permits one to so outdistance the others, he says, is "how they are put together" -- in Apple's case, with yet-to-be-matched software and essential cool. Playing at the top of his game, Jobs can lead the way to ubiquitous, headache-free, plug-and-play computing, including every definition of "play" and taking a variety of forms.

The science of cool

Computer and component companies have long been trying to break out of the industrial park, starting even before computing became personal. In 1972, Intel -- yes, Intel -- started a digital lifestyle initiative of sorts when it acquired Microma, a start-up that made digital watches. Intel's chief executive, Gordon Moore, predicted that prices would fall, but even he could not always anticipate the speed of the phenomenon.

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