In this first installment of Dumenco's Media People -- a new interview series with media grandees conducted by our media columnist Simon Dumenco -- Macworld VP-Editorial Director Jason Snell talks about Apple's challenges in the wake of news reports about Apple CEO Steve Jobs' mysterious health problems.
Mr. Snell, who spent last week on the floor at the annual Macworld Conference & Expo in San Francisco, has helmed the leading Mac magazine (circulation of 300,000 and 12 million page views per month at macworld.com) for five years, and has covered all things Apple as a journalist for 15 years. A recent poll of Mac-industry watchers ranked him No. 6 in the pantheon of the most powerful people in the Mac universe. For the record, Macworld the magazine is operationally separate from the Expo, and Mr. Snell has no managerial oversight over the conference. Both are subsidiaries of International Data Group.
Simon Dumenco: The media buzz on Macworld Expo this year was that there was no buzz. Or, rather, that any possible buzz about Apple's lineup of not-particularly-exciting products was inevitably eclipsed by the buzz and speculation about Steve Jobs' health. So set me straight: Did anything stealthily exciting or potentially revolutionary come out of Macworld this year -- whether from Apple or from a second-party hardware or software vendor?
Jason Snell: Apple's software announcements, particularly about iPhoto and iMovie, were actually pretty interesting. But Apple's success recently has made everyone expect every Apple-related event to bring some earth-shattering new piece of technology, and that's not a realistic expectation. Not even Apple has that great a batting average.
In any event, I'm not sure if anything revolutionary came out of Macworld this year, but I certainly saw plenty of interesting products, from the first digital picture frame that I've actually ever liked to a little portable bluetooth video camera to some pretty clever software by independent Mac software developers. Nothing that's necessarily going to change the world, but still some pretty cool stuff. The Mac market tends to bring out lots of interesting little products.
Dumenco: You've been going to Macworld Expo since what year?
Snell: 1994. Fifteen years ago was my first Expo and I've been to every one since.
Dumenco: So how weird -- or even sad -- was it for you to not have Jobs at the heart of the show? He's such a god among Expo-goers. It seems to me that going to a Macworld Expo without a Steve Jobs performance is like going to church or temple and not having a service.
Snell: I think Steve Jobs' religious significance is greatly overstated in the media. Jobs is the best product demo-er I've ever seen, and he has brought national and international media focus on Macworld Expo that was not there prior to Apple's recent resurgence. But keep in mind, Macworld Expo existed long before there were Steve Jobs keynotes. In fact, for a few years there right before Jobs returned to Apple, the Apple keynotes were pretty dire. But there's no doubt that it was awkward and weird to have a Macworld Expo San Francisco that wasn't kicked off by a Jobs keynote. It's been a decade, really.
Dumenco: Back in December, you wrote, "I'm stunned that Apple has taken a 25-year-old event that has been the single best meeting place for the entire community of users and vendors of Apple-related products and treated it like a piece of garbage stuck to the bottom of its shoe." You also wrote that Apple's insistence that it was phasing out of the Macworld Expo forever somewhat deflected the "Steve-Jobs-health speculation machine" and, at least for awhile, made the storyline more about "the death of Macworld Expo." But then came Jobs' extraordinary letter owning up to his recent health issues. Which made it seem like Apple was dissembling all along about Jobs's no-show at Macworld Expo. And his letter, with its vague reference to his "hormonal imbalance" and no mention of how this might or might not relate to his 2004 pancreatic cancer treatment, seemed guaranteed to not only buzz-kill last week's proceedings, but prompt a whole new cycle of gossip and speculation about what, exactly, is up with his health and his stewardship of the company.
From where I'm sitting, it seems like Apple has totally botched the handling of this; the PR strategy here, the damage-control strategy, is just wacky and ill-timed. What's going on? Is Apple in shock? Is the company, including its PR and marketing machinery, basically in panic mode because Jobs seems suddenly mortal again?
Snell: It's hard to guess what's really going on. My personal opinion is that for whatever reason it was decided that Jobs couldn't or wouldn't give the keynote, and given the recent speculation about his health, a simple announcement that Jobs wouldn't be giving the keynote would lead to massive speculation that he was very sick. By changing the story to be about Apple throwing Macworld Expo under the bus, Apple deflected attention from Jobs' absence. It worked for a couple of days, but in the end the speculation machine left Expo and turned back to Jobs' health, which led to the health statement he released.
Make no mistake: Apple's been preparing to dump Macworld Expo for years. It's been framing their retail success in terms of how many Expos worth of traffic their stores generate for years. It's created a system that allows them to announce media events with two weeks' notice and get all the coverage it desires. It doesn't need a trade show to expose its products to customers and it doesn't need it for media attention. The way I figure it, the company has been waiting for an opportune time to make the break, and this was that time.
Dumenco: Even if, as Steve Jobs wrote, the remedy for his "nutritional problem is relatively simple and straightforward," and he can gain weight back and regain his health by the spring, well, the company is still obviously very distracted. What do you see happening to Apple, the company, in 2009? Is this a rebuilding year? Are we going to be see a rethinking/restructuring of the company to be less Jobs-centric?
Snell: I don't know if Apple's distracted. I'd disagree with that. I'm sure there are plenty of interesting products in the pipeline. The company will announce them when it's good and ready, that's all. I'm sure that Jobs' health issues have led to the company considering how to structure itself so that not as much of the weight of management falls on him, but that may have happened five years ago when Jobs had cancer. Apple will keep doing what it's been doing. It's riding the wave of the iPhone's success, especially when it comes to the third-party app store. There will be a new version of OS X this year, new Mac hardware, new iPods, possibly a new device somewhere between an iPod touch and a MacBook ... in other words, it will be your typical Apple year in terms of products. But those announcements will be on Apple's terms.
Dumenco: Why doesn't Apple use Jonathan Ive more to talk up the company's products? [Ive, senior VP-industrial design at Apple, is the lead designer of the iMac, the MacBook, the iPod and the iPhone.] He's a god in the design world. You've met the guy -- he's an undisputed genius, and as a designer he's one of the great communicators of our age -- but does he just lack the requisite showmanship to be one of the key public faces of Apple, the brand evangelist, if Steve Jobs is sidelined?
Snell: Let me turn that question around a little bit. I think the entire idea of a "replacement" for Steve Jobs is misguided. Let's just all admit that Jobs is a unique sort of franchise player. He does a lot of things really well. If he were to reduce his role at Apple for whatever reason -- I like to imagine that someday he'll just buy a tropical island like a James Bond villain and retire -- he will not be replaced by any one person, but by different people in different roles. Tim Cook appears to be the operations and management guy, the adult supervision. Jonathan Ive has a similar design taste to Jobs. Phil Schiller actually does a pretty good job as a demo guy -- I think most tech companies would love having Phil Schiller be their keynote guy. Jonathan Ive is a brilliant designer -- I don't think he needs to be a CEO or good with a clicker on stage in front of thousands of people.
Dumenco: Other than Ive, who else at Apple is a god? Meaning, who are the heroes within the company, or the potential breakout stars? If some of the attention necessarily shifts from Jobs in the months and years ahead, who could move to the forefront and rally not only the company, but Apple consumers?
Snell: Apple's bench is deep. In addition to the people I just mentioned, there are other people such as Greg Joswiak, who is Apple's product marketing guy for the iPhone. Joswiak gives great presentations and has a great rapport with the press, and since he comes from the nitty-gritty product side at Apple he knows his technical detail as well. Apple doesn't subscribe to the auteur theory -- it generally hides the name of most of its employees and prefers that you consider Apple as a faceless whole -- but occasionally you see someone float to the top like Randy Ubillos, who demoed iMovie '09 at Macworld Expo and is a remarkably talented software developer. Scott Forstall has been a capable ambassador for the iPhone. Those people have always been there, but in a world where we may see a little less of Steve Jobs, Apple may finally let more of those names and faces be seen by the public.
Dumenco: Your January cover, showing Steve Jobs and the original Macintosh as they appeared on your very first cover, is rather amazing. Not only because Steve Jobs is so baby-faced -- and he's wearing a tie and a pin-striped suit! -- but because, well, seeing the original, clunky, tan, black-and-white-screen Mac on a contemporary magazine cover is so jarring. It prompts instant nostalgia. And shock, really, upon realizing that the Mac is a quarter-century old. Do you remember the first time you touched a Mac? And did you know then that you'd end up in a career that was so Mac-centric?
Snell: It's funny, because my reaction was slightly different: After all, what is today's iMac but a direct descendent of that original Mac, a display and computer combined into a single, friendly object? Twenty-five years later, Jobs' original vision is still intact, or at least it's been restored in the decade since he's been back at Apple. As for me, the first time I saw a Mac was at a West Coast Computer Faire in the mid-'80s, and I remember being blown away by the detail of its graphics, disappointed by its lack of color, and baffled by the mouse. I didn't use one until my senior year in high school, but by the time I got to college I was hooked -- we used them at my college newspaper -- so I bought a Mac SE at the university bookstore and never looked back.