The hero of the week's big tech confab: Steve Jobs

At All Things D's big D10 tech conference, the intensity and innovation of Steve Jobs still reverberates from his six appearances at the show in years past.

Steve Jobs, two years ago, at D8
In 2010, D8 kicked off with Apple CEO Steve Jobs. Asa Mathat/All Things Digital

All Things D's D10 conference featured interviews with powerful and innovative people, not just from technology but also politics, entertainment, and education. Yet presiding over them all, it seemed, there was one giant whose work touched everybody there: Steve Jobs.

The late Apple co-founder's presence was not hard to miss, as other writers like Steven Levy of Wired and Nick Wingfield of The New York Times, noted previously.

The conference (full coverage) kicked off with an interview of Steve Jobs' designated successor, Tim Cook. He took pains to remind people, with words, effect, and attitude, that while he was carrying the torch for Apple he was most definitely not trying to imitate his old boss.

Cook has to be his own man. He's adopted some of Jobs' policies and attitudes where he's seen fit (secrecy) and told people he was going off in his own direction in other ways (charitable giving). In some areas he outright reversed what Jobs had said. For example, he said he'd like to bring Apple manufacturing back to the U.S. Jobs had previously said, "The jobs aren't coming back."

But while Cook appeared the model of the driven, tough, and capable tech CEO, he does not shine with the fire for product design as Jobs did. When asked why a tablet can't be a PC, Cook's answer was logical and rigorous; Jobs' would have been imaginative and intuitive. Cook's was a good answer, but it wasn't what we think of as an Apple answer.

When asked who's in charge of "curating" product at Apple, Cook said, "the role moves," deflecting the job from himself and assigning it to the corporate body of Apple -- the teams of people working there. It was a very CEO-ish thing to do. But there wasn't even a mention of Jony Ive, the design leader and Jobs confidant credited with some of Apple's most innovative and successful designs.

Cook's not-Steveness was what people talked about the most after his interview. "He's no Steve Jobs," several people said to me. Some appeared pleased to see a man who was comfortable to be in his own skin while living in the shadow of Jobs. Others I talked to said it was time to start shorting Apple stock, that there was no way Cook could inspire employees, or customers, the way Jobs had.

Jobs' influence at the conference didn't wane for the next day and a half of sessions. There was, of course, the session devoted to reminiscing about Jobs as a friend and industry giant, by his two friends Larry Ellison (Oracle) and Ed Catmull (Pixar). The key takeaway from that session, which stayed with the D10 attendees, wasn't so much the story about how Jobs and Ellison had conspired to come up with an excuse to get rid of the peacock that Jobs' girlfriend had given him, but rather Jobs' tireless perfectionism.

Ellison said during the session, in what almost seemed a meditation for the leaders in the audience, "You cannot copy Steve. If there's an unsolved problem at work, can you think of anything else?" Ellison said if you have "that kind of obsessiveness, combined with Picasso's aesthetic and Edison's inventiveness," then, perhaps, you're the next Steve. Ellison seemed pretty sure no one else in the industry has it.

"He was obsessed with the creative process and building something beautiful," Ellison said.

And then there was the voluble Ari Emanuel. With his industry (film and TV) under pressure from online distribution and piracy, he called on "Northern California" or the tech industry, to work more with "Southern California," the entertainment industry, to figure out ways to protect the rights and incomes of content creators.

Emanuel spoke mostly in a measured and persistent manner about the issue, but when challenged (by The Verge's Joshua Topolsky) he erupted, unleashing a highly emotional argument equating piracy with child pornography. His arguments didn't come close to turning attendees to his position, but neither did the D crowd change Emanuel's mind. There was perhaps one man who could have made a dent in his arguments, but he wasn't there. With his work at Pixar, on the Disney board, with the experience he had in content distribution at Apple, and with his passion for user experience and great content, Steve Jobs could have connected with Emanuel, emotionally and intellectually, about content, distribution, and technological change. Nobody else at D10 was able to.

Update 1:20 p.m. PT: In a letter on All Things D today, Ari Emanuel said he wants to work with technology companies on this issue. "It's time for Hollywood, our government and Silicon Valley to step up and collectively resolve this problem. Let me know where and when and I'll be there," he wrote.

In a session with Daniel Ek and Sean Parker of Spotify, of course Jobs' influence was also felt. It was Jobs who successfully brought the music industry into the post-CD era, Jobs who provided the first commercially successful competitor to Parker's Napster. Now Spotify appears to have a shot at challenging iTunes in a few ways. That led one audience member to ask an unusual question of Parker, but one that was clearly influenced by the spirit of Jobs hovering over the proceedings. He asked: Do you think you're the next Steve Jobs?

Now, the only right way to answer that question is to say "no." And that's what Parker did first. But he didn't stop there. He went on to explain that he tends to micromanage product design, as Jobs did. Then he said that he wouldn't compare himself to Jobs. One got the impression he'd been thinking about it.

Walt Mossberg also interviewed the screenwriter Aaron Sorkin at D10. Why? Primarily because he's working on a biographical film about Jobs. The audience was hanging on Sorkin's words. His philosophy for writing characters seemed to indicate a high probability that he'll be able to show people what they want to see: "You want to write the character as if they're making the case to God why they should be allowed into heaven."

That may be an open question for many people who have followed Jobs' career. But one thing at D10 was extremely clear: He hasn't exactly left this world yet.

 

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