Saturday, October 15, 2005

iWorld

With his customary fanfare and flair for the theatrical, Apple Computer Chief Executive Steve Jobs on Thursday announced the release of the video-enabled iPod, the latest tweak on the music recall device everyone seems to have today. With Jobs' latest bold move, the entertainment industry is again on notice that the relationship between producer and consumer is changing more quickly than ever; and that, regardless of market share and gross capitalization relative to other corporations in the space, Apple continues to enjoy an almost mythic high ground among devotees of the cutting edge.

As with other Apple products, the introduction of the video iPod will likely terrify the business world of personal entertainment technology. The rollout ads and at least some of Jobs' presentation were impressive. One ad for the new iPod showcases a video starring U2 (fast becoming Apple's house band); the camera pulls back slightly to frame up the video not in the spatial context of an actual performance but as an image on the screen of the New Device. And justhatfast, entertainment changes.

Microsoft, Apple's eternal bete noire, was late to the party, having introduced mobile video in 2004, about two years after the introduction of the iPod. In a story in yesterday's Seattle Post-Intelligencer, analysts told reporter Todd Bishop that sales of Microsoft's Portable Media Center "have been sluggish and consumer awareness is low."

Bishop asked a tech-savvy lawyer what he thought of the Microsoft product. "Never heard of them," the lawyer said. But he was hot to maybe buy the new iPod.

This begins to explain the differences one encounters when comparing Microsoft and Apple; both are visionary companies with enviable track records and reliable products; both are immediately recognized around the world; both are adapting technology to the human experience in compelling ways. But in the look & feel world of marketing, in the way the public experiences the product, Apple comes out on top.

Why? Let's call it the JNSQ Factor. Those four letters are fom the words in the French phrase "je ne sais quoi," which more or less literally translates to "I know not what," an expression used to describe the ineffable, ephemeral, something quality that makes a person, an idea, a performance, a device stand apart from, and usually above, the competition.

Apple has always held down that lofty perch. From the beginning, when the Macintosh was introduced, Apple set the pace for weaving art and computer technology in a way Microsoft couldn't hope to achieve. One reason for this is very much rooted in what each company is and what each company sells.

Apple's stock in trade is the development of the computer and tangible devices -- objects that, like all objects, summon a personal identification with the owner, a sense of individuality, a personality. Apple's core products reinforce our proprietary instincts, our embrace of things -- things we can hold and touch and manipulate and feel. Microsoft's business is software, arrays of code and markup language, ones and zeroes designed to improve efficiency, enhance productivity, streamline operations -- all utterly necessary in the modern world, but in the end not seen being as personal, as individual, as downright cuddly as that work of art sitting on your desktop, blinking every so often to remind you just how cool it looks.

JNSQ for sho. It's that extra element in an Apple product rollout that a Microsoft rollout doesn't seem to have. That edge. That mystery. That cool, elegant visual vocabulary that appears to owe as much to Zen-monastery simplicity as to the technology that embodies that simplicity. Want proof? Walk through an Apple retail store, like the one hard by the campus of the University of Washington. Watch people handling the new products. They play with them like at any consumer electronics store, of course. But there's often an extra lingering glance, the sweep of a hand across the monitor that's less the act of a consumer than it is the act of a suitor, one truly desirous of the object of his or her affections.

Sorry -- you don't feel that way about software, no matter how enabling it is. It's hard to fall in love with tags and code.

Not that Microsoft isn't subject to people's emotional reactions. One problem for MSFT is the still-lingering perception of the company as technological bully, that perception arising from the landmark civil trial in which the U.S. government sued the company for stifling competition, and despite a settlement in the case in 2004. With baggage like that trailing and preceding you, as well as a longstanding reputation for playing hardball with everyone from competitors to your own contract workers, it's hard for the public to embrace you, even if your product is in every facet of their daily lives. It all comes down to perception.

Apple has always played up its reputation as the mouse that roared; Microsoft has always positioned itself as an unstoppable force. Little guy vs. big guy. David vs. Goliath. And the public has voted, about 30 million times at last count, for the iPod from the little guy, while the big guy's Portable Media Center goes wanting. Reason? It's partly, or even mostly, human nature: People respect Goliath but their hearts, and regions south of their hearts, are with the underdog.

Apple's made missteps too -- can you say "Lisa"? Ironically enough, the video iPod Jobs rolled out this week was the result of a change of mind; as recently as last year, Bishop reported Friday, Jobs had come to the conclusion "that video may be the wrong direction to go." Jobs presumably got religion when he saw the market-share bite that Sony's PlayStation enjoys, and considered the prospect of a groundbreaking distribution deal with Disney (and by extension the best programming on ABC).

And Apple innovates more frequently (almost too frequently). That's great for running rings around the competition, but it can be pleasantly maddening if you're a Macintosh devotee. Apple zealously tweaks and upgrades hardware and operating systems so often it can be hard to keep up. Case in point: I bought a new iMac computer with 75GB, Bluetooth wireless mouse and 17-inch all-in-one display for about $1,900 in February. By July, if memory serves, Apple had dropped the price: had I waited, I could have bought a 20-inch iMac for the same as my 17-inch five months earlier. Then they did it again: When Jobs announced the video iPod, he also took wraps off the new iMac, which features a remote control for access to music and images from across the room, and a built-in web camera -- all for about what I paid, months earlier, for less.

That's the cost of keeping up. And the 30 million who ponied up for the iPod understand that, and they're willing to pay even more. They can't get enough. They're in the gym and at the coffee shops and in their cars and on the street, listening to whatever they want whenever they want, every one caught up in their own little world.

But not really. It's Steve Jobs' world, actually. We just boot it up.

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