As this week’s iPhone unveiling made clear, Apple chairman Steve Jobs is a master of the product rollout.
Every year, the company uses its MacExpo to seduce fans, critics and even skeptical reporters. Wired’s Mac columnist Pete Mortenson explains why everyone finds Apple so delicious.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: From WNYC in New York, this is NPR's On the Media. I'm Brooke Gladstone. BOB GARFIELD: And I'm Bob Garfield. The announcement had been rumored for weeks, but the specific details were the subject of widespread media speculation. When the news finally came, frenzy. Never mind the front pages of U.S.A. Today, Wall Street Journal, The New York Times and The Washington Post, never mind The Evening News, Nightline and the blogosphere – the news was everywhere. Talk about surge – this was a surge.
MALE REPORTER: We got the first look today at the new must-have device. FEMALE REPORTER: It's an iPod. It's a phone. Is this man Superman? MALE REPORTER: Apple CEO Steve Jobs said his company will introduce a new phone that does just about everything. FEMALE REPORTER: I don't know what it is, but I want it. BOB GARFIELD: [LAUGHS] You didn't think I was talking about Iraq, did you? No, the hottest story of the week wasn't how President Bush pitched a plan to escalate the war. It was Apple's new iPhone, unveiled with the usual extravagant lights, sounds and hyperbole at the annual Macworld Expo. Wired Online's columnist Pete Mortenson was there. PETE MORTENSON: At about 9 in the morning, James Brown comes on with I Feel Good. The crowd sort of starts rumbling. There are gigantic video screens all over the place. The lights dim, and Steve Jobs emerges. People go nuts. And he goes into what his typical script for introducing products is. He talks a little bit about the success Apple has had, touches on existing products a little bit, and then starts heading toward new stuff.
In particular this time, there was the Apple TV, which was previously announced as the iTV last fall. It was expected. People knew about this. Then he stopped silent, the screen fades and an Apple logo, inspired by the monolith from 2001: A Space Odyssey comes on the screen. I don't think they started playing Also Sprach Zarathustra [BOB LAUGHS] - but it wouldn't have been out of place. And he says, welcome – we're going to make some history today. And everybody in the audiences buys it, the people who are paying to be there and therefore have a greater vested stake in believing this, the people who are friends with Apple and just want to believe it, and the journalists who are there not to believe it.
And he then says, Apple has an amazing tradition of introducing truly revolutionary products, and today we're going to introduce three such products. And there are gasps all over. He says, first we're going to bring out a wide-screen iPod, second, a revolutionary new phone, and third, a breakthrough communications device for the Internet. BOB GARFIELD: And, of course, it isn't three products but, in fact, it's one product. It's the iPhone. When the 2,000 journalists are standing there in the midst of this frenzy, what happens to their skepticism? PETE MORTENSON: As soon as he held up the actual iPhone, it all dropped away, and everyone wanted one. It's embarrassing, but you can't help but feel sucked into it. BOB GARFIELD: You actually write a column devoted to the whole idea that Apple isn't so much a company as a cult with a ticker symbol. How does a company achieve this status? Is it because they're masters of presentation, or just because they consistently deliver the goods? PETE MORTENSON: It's all of the above, and it's also a third piece, which is that they're massively secretive. So essentially they tend to let journalists, pundits and their fans do all of their P.R. for them. I'm told that neither Google nor Yahoo, who worked intimately on software for the iPhone, ever saw it until Jobs introduced it.
I still wasn't convinced there was going to be an iPhone, and if there hadn't been, I think you would have seen Apple's stock plummet yesterday. But because there was, the entire world went nuts with acclaim. BOB GARFIELD: In the end, this is really — it's a business story. Even Enron had a hard time finding its way to page one. Do you find yourself marveling at how the mainstream press can get so completely hooked? PETE MORTENSON: I do to a certain extent, but I also think that the fascination is a very simple one. Apple is one of a handful of American companies that is still looked at as the leader in its field. For numerous other fields, companies in Asia and Europe are out in front, so when Apple, started by a pair of good American boys, gets up and does something that really knocks back those kinds of competitors, Americans are out of their seat. It's an amazing story. BOB GARFIELD: In fairness, the iPod was a genuinely revolutionary product, so I guess the press could be forgiven for at least giving this guy a good listen. PETE MORTENSON: And perhaps because they did underestimate the iPod when it was introduced. I remember in early 2001, Steve Jobs announced that he was going to bring forth a breakthrough digital device, and people got really excited; was this going to be a teleportation box? You know, they were just going wild. [BOB LAUGHS]
And then he brought it up, and it was an MP3 player. And not only was it an MP3 player, it was a five hundred dollar MP3 player. [BOB LAUGHS]
And the world just rolled its eyes. And six years later, it really has changed multiple industries. So I think there might be a little bit of retroactive apology, so that now people do buy completely into his hype because they underestimated him the last time. BOB GARFIELD: Now, on the subject of Jobs, it's fairly evident, criminally or not, that he was a participant in the backdating of stock options for compensation of top Apple executives. No charges have been filed, but it's a big mess for him.
And yet, this week, when the iPhone was introduced, it seemed to all just fade into the background. PETE MORTENSON: He does seem to really have a Teflon coating, and I think it's because he's sort of this iconic business hero. You know, he came from nothing. He didn't complete his college education. He just had this masterful knowledge of knowing what people want and need.
And so when he does something that is pretty evidently unethical or potentially even criminal, people don't want to believe it. And a reason not to believe it is that he's capable of bringing forth the iPhone, if that makes any sense at all. How could someone bring such beauty into the world and also be flawed? And [BOB LAUGHS] it's ridiculous that journalists could take their eye off the ball that way, but I also think it's incredibly human. BOB GARFIELD: I looked at much of the coverage of this introduction and found exactly one piece that evinced any sort of skepticism about whether this thing is the real deal. Is the thing so transcendent that it defies any kind of negative publicity?
PETE MORTENSON: What's really funny is that all of the incredibly positive coverage that the iPhone has received has come with barely anyone actually touching it. You know, it's a device that's about manipulation with your fingers, but at Macworld, Apple keeps it under lock and key. It's in a glass case, like a rare diamond. You can't really find flaws with something when you've only seen it demonstrated by the great and terrible Jobs. BOB GARFIELD: [LAUGHS] All right, Pete. Well, thank you so much for joining us. PETE MORTENSON: Thank you, Bob. BOB GARFIELD: Pete Mortenson co-authors The Cult of Mac blog for wired.com.