01.26.10

Steve Jobs: Flip-Flopper

The Apple founder will unveil his company's latest innovation today. But Jobs was against the iSlate before he was for it. His biographer, Alan Deutschman, on his shrewd spin-shifting.

The Apple founder unveiled his company's latest innovation Wednesday. But Jobs was against the iSlate before he was for it. His biographer, Alan Deutschman, on his shrewd spin-shifting.

Steve Jobs’ longtime friend Heidi Roizen, who worked closely with him when she was a senior executive at Apple, once told me that she wondered for a long time whether Jobs was a compulsive liar. Ultimately, she determined that Jobs wasn’t a liar at all: He could say X one day and not-X the next day, and each time he would genuinely, passionately believe what he was saying. That’s why he could always speak with such powerful conviction. That’s why he exerted a legendary persuasiveness. “Steve’s brain has an amazing ability to recraft things and put a different spin on them,” Roizen said.

Jobs once hung a vintage World War II poster near his desk saying “Loose Lips Sink Ships.”

Jobs has been spin-shifting throughout the long sweep of his fabled career, beginning in the early days of Apple when he denied fathering Lisa, the daughter born out-of-wedlock to his high-school girlfriend. Jobs stubbornly refused to acknowledge his parentage or pay $20,000 to help support mother and child even after a blood test determined a 94.4 percent probability that he was the father. Lisa grew to have an uncanny resemblance to him, and eventually he proudly claimed his parenthood.

Or remember when Jobs, who had treated Bill Gates as an archenemy, embraced his longtime nemesis when a struggling Apple accepted a $150 million investment from Microsoft? More recently, Jobs almost had us fooled when, despite looking skeletal and sickly, he persisted in downplaying the severity of his illness, which, we now know, could have killed him.

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The latest example of Jobs’ shrewd spin-shifting is Apple’s long-awaited “tablet” computer, which the fabulous showman personally revealed at a media event Wednesday in San Francisco. The gizmo is thought to be a challenge to Amazon.com’s Kindle electronic book reader, which has attracted a passionate following and cracked open a promising new market. If so, it will mark a stunning reversal: Only two years ago, Jobs contemptuously predicted that the Kindle would flop: “It doesn’t matter how good or bad the product is,” he told The New York Times, because “the fact is that people don’t read anymore. Forty percent of the people in the U.S. read one book or less last year. The whole conception is flawed at the top because people don’t read anymore.”

But the Kindle has been a winner, and Jobs has had to watch as a rival tech CEO brilliantly lifted a strategy right out of his own playbook: This time it was Jeff Bezos, not Jobs, who was celebrated for a breakthrough design of the hardware, the user interface, and the rest of the customer experience that made things easy, fast, and cheap enough that people would actually pay something for digitized content rather than steal it. Bezos was doing for books what Jobs had done for music with the iPod and iTunes. This time Bezos, not Jobs, was the first to establish and then dominate a new market with great potential for growth. (Amazon captured an estimated 90 percent of the e-book business.) While Bezos is nearly as secretive as Jobs and has refused to reveal the Kindle’s sales figures, it’s likely that its trajectory in its early rollout has been roughly comparable to the iPod’s.

Longtime Jobs-watchers shouldn’t be surprised that Steve has switched from saying X to saying not-X or that he’ll say it with utter passion and persuasiveness at Apple’s tablet launch. The Wall Street Journal reported that Jobs is betting that new device will enable him to “reshape” the beleagured old-media businesses such as books, magazines, and newspapers “much the way his iPod revamped the music industry.” Despite Jobs’ obsession with secrecy about his upcoming products—near his desk, he once hung a vintage World War II poster saying “Loose Lips Sink Ships”—the news quickly leaked that Jobs’ minions were talking with The New York Times, Conde Nast, HarperCollins, and News Corp. about deals for Apple to sell their words and pictures to the millions of affluent consumers who are expected to pay up to a thousand bucks a pop for the gadget, which is rumored to have a 10-inch-diagonal touch screen.

The burgeoning Apple-Amazon competition is already promising benefits for old media businesses. In anticipation of Apple’s tablet launch, Amazon announced that it would begin giving a more favorable split of Kindle sales dollars to publishers and authors. Amazon also decided to allow outsiders to create software to run on its device.

While Apple’s tablet represents a much-needed new opportunity for struggling print publishers, it’s foolish to believe the pre-event hype about Jobs offering salvation for old media. The iPod and iTunes have enabled the music industry to survive, yes, but not to prosper: Its revenue has fallen by 40 percent in the past decade. Meanwhile, Apple has been so extraordinarily successful that its stock market valuation ($178 billion) is even higher than almighty Google’s. Not bad for a company that had nearly died before its co-founder returned to take over once again. Steve Jobs won’t single-handedly save the media, but his latest creation, whether it turns out to be yet another blockbuster or a mere brand extension, will almost surely help sustain the most remarkable corporate resurgence of our times. And even if it’s a flop, which is indeed possible (remember the Mac Cube?), we can count on Jobs to recraft a brilliant new spin the next time around.

Alan Deutschman is the author of The Second Coming of Steve Jobs. His most recent book is Walk the Walk: The #1 Rule for Real Leaders.