Thursday, August 25, 2011

What media executives should learn from the success of a Steve Jobs led Apple, and why we will miss him terribly

Excuse the quickly written post, but here are a few thoughts – written on the fly – on the impact of Apple and Steve Jobs. In spots it is embarrassingly superficial, sorry about that. But even now, hours after the announcement, few writers appear eager to talk about what Apple's, and by extension, Job's business strategy relates to the rest of the business world, including media.

Newspapers, tech sites and other media outlets will be recapping the incredibly career of Steve Jobs, who yesterday informed the world that he would be stepping down as CEO of Apple. But while many media outlets will predictably recount the ups and downs of both Jobs and the company he ran, few will really talk about what sets Apple apart from other tech companies and what business lessons are to be learned – especially for the struggling media business.

So here are a few thoughts about Apple and the media, written before the conversation returns to market share ("Android is killing iPhone!") and product rumors ("the iPhone 5 will a separate freezer compartment").

1. User Interface matters
While both newspaper and magazine publishers will talk about the art direction of their publishing products, few have a clue about user interface, it is simply not a term widely used in the media business. Roughly speaking, user interface refers to the way on interacts with the product.

For Apple this often meant ease of use. But ease of use is not the sole concern in user interface. "Simple can be harder than complex: You have to work hard to get your thinking clean to make it simple," Jobs once said.

One could talk all day about user interface and Apple, and how Apple's Macintosh revolutionized computing, as did the iPhone. But think about Apple's approach to user interface, and then think about the decisions being made by publishers. Rarely do design decisions ever involve the way the reader interacts with the product. Instead, as in the recent decision by Gannett to downsize some of its newspaper products, the talk is all about cost savings.

For more than a century the newspaper and magazine business has presented readers their products in the same way, in a comfortable and easily duplicatable form. But with many readers now moving to digital only forms of the media, the time is ripe to rethink the basics of the platform and to begin to understand how modern readers will be using and consuming their new digital products.

2. Sometimes it is better to give the customer less, but do it better
The MacBook Air does not have an optical drive; the iPad does not have a USB port, the Apple TV has not hard drive for storage; the iPhone has no keyboard. I need not repeat the ridiculous columns written about how all these missing components would prevent these products from being a success.

Today's newspapers still contain the same basic elements they have had for many decades now: main news, local news, sports, a lifestyle section, business, classifieds. Many of these sections have essentially withered to a page or two, but killing any of them off would take an act of God.

If Steve Jobs had bought the San Jose Mercury News, instead of MediaNews Group, what would it look like today?

3. Better quality and design will justify a higher price point
Until the iPad was introduced at a low price point of $499, Apple was always known as the top of the market, the company that would charge the most for its products. Do you remember what the first iPhone cost? $599 and $499 for the 8 GB and 4 GB models. It then cut the price down to $399 after a few months in the market, before AT&T started offering a subsidized price.

Today a 15-inch MacBook Pro will still cost you over two grand, while most other laptops can be found for around $500 to a grand. But how many buyers of cheap HP laptops really covet a MacBook Pro?

The problem with the pricing question today is that rarely does the quality component come into play. Newspapers, in particular, have come around to the idea that they can, and should, charge for their products online. But readers are not buying it – they see products that are offering less quality, less depth. That is why those products with good reputations for quality reporting are able to put up paywalls, while everyone else is just putting up a wall.

I truly thought that more publishers would have looked at the introduction of the iPad, and tablets in general, as an opportunity to rethink their products in the digital environment, and to create new ones that would justify charging the customer. Instead we are getting replica editions that duplicate the old print platform

4. Innovate and be the best
I suppose this needs no further narrative.

I have always found it ironic that the tech business, centered in the Bay Area and Silicon Valley, should also be the home for some of the nation's worst newspapers. When an employee at Apple thinks about the media business it would be hard not to equate the entire industry with the kinds of products being put out by MediaNews Group, owner of the San Jose Mercury News. For while there might be some old timers, like Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak who grew up with the Knight-Ridder Merc, others will only see the shell of a paper now being produced by the slash and burn publishers of today.

The newspaper business today needs a "1984" moment, a rethinking of the way the user interacts with the news product. Yesterday I was watched that keynote address Jobs gave where he played the Chiat-Day commercial for the first time. Those in attendance probably gave the longest applause ever given for a commercial.

One that day Steve Jobs was on top of the world. But only a few years later he was out on the street. The lesson learned by Steve Jobs was that you have to do all the things mentioned above, but you also have to run a business. To do so you need a team around you that the very best and share your vision for the company and the kinds of products you want to product.

While many have written about the attitude sometimes shown by the people at Apple, especially in their interaction with media companies, few would argue that the people at Apple don't share the vision set by Steve Jobs. Now, think about the corporate culture at many media companies. As they say, 'nuf said.

Have you noticed how terribly sad many writers are today when writing about Steve Jobs? I think there is a realization of what we will all be missing in the years to come.

When Jobs took the stage the last time there was a sense of relief, real joy, as well. All was right with the world when Steve Jobs gave a keynote. That line – "but there is one more thing" – said it all. We were about to see something amazing – or not.

Today tech writers, and the media, in general, recognize the historic value of the Mac, iPod, iPhone and iPad introductions. But few of these events occurred without serious negative press. I, for one, lamented Apple's move into consumer electronics with the iPod and iPhone. I was clearly wrong, it saved the company, and more importantly to me, it saved the Mac.

This is the lesson I learned: to save a product you sometimes need to introduce something else. If the iPod and iPhone saved the Mac, then it is just as true that Titanic (the movie) saved many a newspaper (you get this, right?).

I was never a Steve Jobs "fan", and I've never considered myself an Apple "fanboy", just a customer. But I will miss Steve Jobs because he was the best in his field, and because he ran the company that sold me some of the best products I own. I am writing this on a Mac, I call my family from my iPhone, I watched the Giants win last night via an AppleTV.

But I really will miss Steve Jobs because with Jobs in charge I knew that Apple would think about its customers first, how they interacted with their products, and(for the most part) they would be of the highest quality, even if that meant they were the most expensive.

Sitting next to me is the original owners manual for my Apple IIe, bought when the product was first introduced in 1983. The damn thing is itself a masterpiece. I wish I still had that old thing (but the original monitor died long ago). My relationship with Apple and Steve Jobs starts with that Apple IIe, a computer I loved dearly and was proud to own. I never felt like I was using second-best products when I bought something from Apple. I've owned far more cars that I felt were compromises than I have Apple computers or consumer electronics. I can probably thank Steve Jobs for at least some of those positive experiences, and for probably a few more yet to come. Thanks, Steve.

End Note: Today there will be a lot of articles written about what it all means now that Steve Jobs has stepped down as CEO of Apple. Many will do a good job of recapping the highs, but also taking perverse pleasure in recounting the failures, as if one's batting average is what counts.

Well so be it. But the best testament to the career of Steve Jobs are those keynote videos. The Macintosh introduction is my favorite because it captures the utter joy and surprise of those in attendance, as if the entire audience recognized that the entire computing industry had changed right there, that day.

In the meantime, there will be the occasional Tweet or post from those hypocritical SOBs who have the past couple of years have tried to make a career out of being the anti-Apple prophets – whether it is the media dinosaur disguised as a new media guru who probably still can't figure out why Apple is selling millions of iPads, or the former crook who wants to drive traffic by being an Android sycophant. For them the Steve Jobs announcement will be one more opportunity for their sorry asses to exclaim "look at me, I'm relevant." They aren't.


Battendownthehatches said...

Here another: launch, launch, launch.

If a newspaper controlled Apple they would never have created the iPad out of fear of destroying sales of their laptops - just as they don't create new products out of fear of eating into their newspaper sales.

Anonymous said...

True. If Apple ran like a newspaper, the person involved with laptops would have vetoed the iPad project the same way circulation people are in the same meeting when the discussion is the web.