Apple knows how to inspire, innovate

Posted by Mark Raby

Opinion - Everyone "in the know" already knew most of what we would see during today's Steve Jobs keynote, and yet it will still probably be one of the great moments of 2008.

Steve Jobs could well be the best orator the tech industry has ever known.  When he talks, people listen.  Sure, the same could be said for Bill Gates, but that's really only because you have to listen to him.  With Jobs, it's actually enjoyable to hear what he has to say.

Combine that with an event where all of Apple's biggest punches are dealt, and the Macworld keynote is an inevitable delight.  Today's announcement of the Macbook Air was kind of like Joe Biden resigning from the 2008 presidential race.  We all knew it was coming, but having it be official just makes everyone happier.

My colleague Humphrey Cheung came in this morning, took one look at the new Macbook, and said, "I want one of those."  Our boss Wolfgang Gruener jabbed back, "Yeah.  It's $3100 for the high-end model."  "Maybe not," replied Humphrey.  This is the quintessential Apple story.  The company is able to make products that are visually attractive, the kind of product you look at and say, "I gotta have one of those!"

It's a fantastic goal on which to build a company, and even better when the company achieves it more times than not.  Sometimes the price barrier is a bit detracting for Apple, but instead of just shrugging it off, consumers on a budget seem to be more likely to save up their money for an iPod, iPhone, or iMac.  Apple's devices are just that cool.

Apple is really a quagmire, though.  For every great product innovation, there is at least one thing that make me frown at the company.  For example, what is with the $20 upgrade fee for the iPod Touch?  Uh, hello!  Does Apple actually want people to start nagging on the company?  That's a big punch in the gut to the early adopters who support Apple.  It's kind of like the insanely early iPhone price drop fiasco from last year, where Apple slashed the price by $100 just a couple months after it came out.  Let's also not forget that Apple has one of the worst track records with Greenpeace, although it has recently made efforts to be more environmentally friendly.

Apple also has a history of making small announcements seem huge.  For example, renting digital movie files has been around for years, and now Jobs is trying to give the impression that he's inventing the wheel by duplicating the business models used by other players in the industry since the early 2000s.  

Movie rentals on iTunes are nothing special.  What about the Apple TV, you ask?  Again, it's not that great.  We already have devices that can connect to the TV and power video downloads without the need for a computer conduit.  They're called the Xbox 360 and Tivo, for starters, and each of those already has a higher installed base than the Apple TV will probably ever see.  

Yet, attendees at the Macworld keynote went wild when Jobs announced these things.  In what other field would you find people so excited about bringing back a failed product (e.g. the Apple TV)?   

Steve Jobs truly is an inspiration, even though he tends to use that fact alone to cover up most of his flaws.  Regardless, you have to give him props.  He always puts the entire industry on the edge of its seat.  There's no one else like him, and I can probably speak for everyone when I say I am looking forward to next year's keynote.