New York magazine's John Heilemann's magnum opus on Steve Jobs is the kind of turgid, operatic flight of fancy technology and business coverage could really do without.
He saunters out onstage...
Which is to say he walked out onstage.
Well into his forties, Jobs appeared to have pulled off some kind of unholy Dorian Gray maneuver.
Huh? Here's a picture of Jobs in 1998 when he was 43.
Now, the Macalope doesn't know about you, but if Jobs traded his soul for eternal youth, he must have gotten it back for breach of contract.
The senescence on display is jarring, but it's also fitting. After three decades as Silicon Valley's regnant enfant terrible, Jobs has suddenly, improbably, morphed into its presiding éminence grise.
Oh, dear god, it's an English major gone wild! RUN FOR YOUR LIVES!
OK, it is New York magazine so you should expect some writing flowery enough to give you an allergy attack, but come on. Common courtesy dictates that you limit yourself to one French affectation per sentence.
Heilemann proceeds to detail some of the uncouth things Jobs has said in recent years -- horrors! He said the Segway "sucks"! Get the Macalope to his fainting couch! (note to Heilemann: the Segway does suck) -- as if it should be surprising that someone with Jobs' vision, drive and clarity of purpose might cause some consternation if he were to join the Cupertino chapter of the Oprah Book Club.
"Priscilla, The Bridges Of Madison County is not a fine piece of literature, it's sentimentalist clap-trap. And this lemonade sucks."
But let's get to Heilemann's real argument.
What if Jobs and Apple have peaked? What if, in terms of power and influence, it's all downhill from here? These suggestions might seem incredible, but half a century of high-tech history indicates otherwise. What that history imparts is that it's precisely when the mighty seem invincible that their humbling is close at hand.
Heilemann then details how Jobs snubbed his request for an interview ten years ago.
I don't imagine he much cared for the story that I eventually produced, not because it was especially harsh toward him - it wasn't - but because of its pessimistic view of his prospects for rescuing Apple. "Years of gross mismanagement, infighting, and mounting losses have gone a long way toward erasing what was left of the Apple myth," I opined. "In all probability, Apple is destined to become, at best, a break-even company."
So, here we have Jobs who the last 10 years have proved fantastically right and Heilemann who the same years have proved fantastically wrong. Why, again, are we expected to take Heilemann's opinion on the matter of Apple and Jobs' ability to perform?
With the benefit of hindsight, it's clear that the mistake we skeptics made wasn't overestimating the depths of Apple's problems; Jobs told friends the company was 90 days away from bankruptcy. Our error was underestimating him. But it's worth pointing out that Jobs's genius, his handle on the warp and weft of American consumer culture, hadn't been much in evidence the previous ten years. His post-Apple computer venture, NeXT, had built a high-end machine, the design of which was pure Jobs: a stone-smooth ebony cube. But the NeXT box was astronomically expensive and sold in numbers so small they could be tallied on an abacus. (I exaggerate, but only slightly.)
Ha-ha! Yes, abacuses are funny.
The truth is, we were right to doubt him. The truth is, he was lost.
What? What part of "you were wrong" are you not understanding? OK, it doesn't mean that you're always wrong or that your are necessarily wrong now, but you were not "right to doubt him" because -- and the Macalope cannot stress this enough, apparently -- you were wrong.
Heilemann runs through Jobs' history in the technology industry and says that his disdain for Intel was broken in 2005 when Apple switched processors.
That a dispute so petty, so personal, could fester inside of Jobs's head for nearly 30 years says a great deal about him.
It says a little less than you think it does as, under Jobs' direction, NeXT was ported to Intel back in 1992. But, 15 years, 30 years, what's the difference?
Oh, that's right. Accuracy would be the difference.
The nascent rejuvenation of the Mac naturally brings joy to the hearts of Apple cultists (of which, let me state for the record, I am one). But any cultist claiming that the Mac's revival is what's behind the stratospheric ascent of Jobs and the company must be on drugs. The rocket fuel propelling that development has plainly been the iPod.
Has anyone said that? Not anyone the Macalope's aware of. So why the projection?
But hold on to your hats as Heilemann predicts doom for Apple's music business.
More broadly, though, the resentment over the DRM on iTunes is only growing. In certain quarters of the music industry, Apple is coming to be seen less as an enabler than a gatekeeper... Together with myriad other factors, some economic and some technological, these cavils are stirring up a second online music revolution - one portending nothing good for iTunes or the iPod.
Wait, wasn't Apple the first major online music vendor to deliver DRM-free content? Did the Macalope just dream that?
Heilemann does mention it, but apparently, you see, all the other forces were in play and Apple was just hastily responding to them.
So it doesn't count.
For some reason.
"All this stuff is Apple's blind spot," says Fred Wilson, the New York venture capitalist and rabid music buff. "Right now, the download model is necessary because I want to take music in the car or to the gym. But once we have true mobile broadband, the streaming model is going to take off. Then there's never really going to be a need to own files at all. It'll all just be there in the cloud."
That may be true, but we're still years away from it being reliable and ubiquitous. Come back to the Macalope in five years and see if Apple still has that "blind spot". Also, there are always going to be people who want to own their music rather than rent it.
As for music discovery, Wilson says, "I've never found one single artist or song on iTunes. It's an online version of Tower Records, only worse."
Wilson has a point here, but it's overblown. You can find artists or songs on iTunes but the 30-second preview limit is a constraint. The Macalope would love to see Apple implement its own streaming service and include the ability to buy a streamed song with one click or offer a subscription service for DRM-ed songs, perhaps at a lower quality, although the horned one is not a big fan of the subscription model.
MusicNet's McGlade, whose products compete with iTunes, agrees... "I gotta tell you, once you put people on a subscription service, they can't go back."
Yeah, talk about lock-in. If the Macalope joined a subscription service and then decide to switch services he'd have to start all over again by downloading the Beatles, the Monkees, the Clash, etc. That's hours, if not days, of work.
What does all this mean for iTunes? The impending end of its hegemony.
Again, this prognostication comes from the guy who was wrong 10 years ago. Just so we all know where we are.
But iTunes is rapidly being eclipsed, rendered ordinary, even antediluvian.
Overshadowed, blotted out, surpassed, exceeded, outclassed, upstaged, hackneyed.
He's got a thesaurus and he's not afraid to use it!
Well, the Macalope will just point out that iTunes is the third largest music retailer in the U.S. The reports of its death may be somewhat exaggerated.
As Martin Stiksel, a founder of Last.fm, told me last month in London, "Apple served their purpose already. They validated the space. Thank you very much, Steve, for that, but now we don't really need you anymore."
Yeah, you wish. "Hey, guess what? We interviewed a bunch of Apple competitors and they all think Apple's done for!"
The ramifications for the iPod are less dire, but still grim. In a world of abundant, unprotected MP3s, in which the leverage from iTunes is diminishing, the iPod is likely to confront a more competitive landscape.
The leverage from iTunes just isn't that great. And the reason people continue to buy iPods is simply because they're better. It's true that as prices of digital music players continue to fall, the iPod will become less important for Apple which is why the iPhone is partly intended to take its place.
Heilemann presents the usual complaints about the iPhone you've heard a million times over. Perhaps he thinks they'll have more weight because his editor gave him 950 inches for this silly piece and he was determined to use every one of them, but they don't.
It's only fair to note that many of the doubts about the iPhone are being conjured by Apple's adversaries.
Ya think? It's odd that Hielemann chose only to talk to Apple competitors and those who validated his sage "concern" for Apple, isn't it?
He goes on to make an absurd reconstruction of Jobs' famous love-in with Bill Gates a few weeks ago.
Gates stroked his chin for a long moment, then smiled a mischievous smile. "Oh," he said, "I'd give a lot to have Steve's taste."
Jobs stared down, shooting daggers at the floor.
The joint interview was revealing on other levels, too. Whereas Gates came across as entirely at ease, almost avuncular, Jobs was coiled as tight as a spring.
Heilemann is disappointed there weren't any fireworks at the event so he feels compelled to create them. The Macalope watched the whole video and this is an utter fabrication.
He then completes his personal fantasy by uncritically quoting some neighbor of Jobs' who thinks Google is going to buy Apple (what would an advertising company want with a hardware company?) as an end game.
Why is it that technology porn always ends with someone buying Apple?
There are a few worthy tidbits in this piece, but it includes so much psychological and motivational supposition that the result is best describe as "a fictional account".
As for Jobs' ability to continue to manage multiple projects at Apple, well, he did also run Pixar for most of the past 10 years, a charge that is no longer his. Sure, he's on Disney's board, but that's got to be less of a time commitment.
Ultimately, Heilemann simply has no credibility to speak on the subject New York magazine gave him 450,000 words to write about. He was wrong 10 years ago and he seems to have only a vague recognition of difference between facts and "Hielemann world". Not a stunning combination.