Archive for the ‘Steve Jobs’ Tag

. . . and then the tools shape us.   Leave a comment

August 1, 2018

     What’s in an age? It can refer to the length of time you, me, anyone has lived. It can be a particular stage in a life. Ten years ago my daughter was “college age”. When was I college age? I completed my MA as an adult (?) 15 years ago; so what age am I today? History has its own ages. Geologic time refers to the physical makeup and history of our planet. If you’re that curious, geologic time might take you back a billion years. Frankly, thinking about a billion years of history is too much for me (as in “here comes a headache”). Instead I’ve been thinking about technology as it relates to my personal ages.

     It is sometimes difficult for us to recognize that our lifetime’s journey changes our perspective about “ages”. My life during the “post-war” years specifically refers to those decades immediately following World War II. There were plenty of other wars and battles between 1945 and 2018—Afghanistan, the Balkans, Egypt/Israel, Grenada, Iraq, Korea, Kosovo, Kuwait, Syria, Vietnam—but “post war” for me is that twenty years between 1945 and the mid-1960s. Technology (as in television, transistor radios, etc.) was clearly advancing, but most people then could not fathom how the decades to follow would transform life.

     In 1979 I was working for A&M Records, Herb Alpert’s recording label (which he co-owned). That last year of the ‘70s decade was a difficult year for some parts of the music industry. A&M had some remarkable breakthroughs that year including albums by Supertramp and Herb Alpert both selling well enough to earn gold and platinum awards from the RIAA, the music industry’s keeper of the stats. There were others, to be sure, but I remember those two clearly for different reasons. Herb’s renaissance as a recording artist was jumpstarted by his hit single (and the accompanying album). “Rise” was the CoversCombined CRfirst bonafide hit digital recording of the digital age; likewise, Supertramp transformed their career, from the band everyone loved but still hadn’t sold a million of anything. Breakfast in America changed that. And both those records helped A&M Records weather the coming recession, when our government’s decision to raise interest rates and the Iranian government’s decision to restrict oil shipments helped screw up the economy.

     The Sony Walkman portable cassette player signaled another sea change in technology. Also introduced in 1979, the Walkman assured us Walkman 300px-Original_Sony_Walkman_TPS-L2that music was going to be highly portable. No longer tethered to the turntable, you could now throw a dozen cassettes in a bag and listen anywhere, anytime. Miles Copeland, who then managed the band Police, stopped in to our Hollywood offices near Christmas 1979. He was returning from a trip to Japan and was showing us the Sony Walkman he just purchased in Tokyo. We were all impressed with his new ‘toy’. And in short order CDs were also going to revolutionize the record business. No more scratchy vinyl. Now we offered our favorite artists in these indestructible shiny discs. Of course they weren’t indestructible, but we embraced these digital “records”. Cassette tapes and vinyl records seemed doomed. Cassettes are gone, and yet vinyl records are still being manufactured, but in infinitely smaller numbers.

     I remember my 1984 Audi 5000. I liked the car, but I remember it as much for its “history” as my first vehicle equipped with a cell phone, a large unit installed between the bucket seats. In less than a decade the cell phone had shrunk to a size small enough to fit easily into the palm of your hand. I had a Nokia (circa 1996) mobile that was so compact I lost it a year later on a shuttle bus somewhere between the Hertz counter and San Francisco Airport’s United Airlines terminal. In 2001 Steve Jobs delivered the first Apple iPod. Cassettes disappeared, and the days of traveling around with a bag of cassettes came to a merciful end.

     In 2007 Jobs showed the world what a singular vision (along with $150 million in development money) could deliver with the introduction of the first iPhone. Few would DS iphone_original_2007_02-100727597-orig CRdisagree with the premise that the iPhone changed everyone’s thinking. Cell phones were mundane, smart phones were the future. And the iPhone was the technology to which every other smart phone was (and is still) compared to. It wasn’t just about the device. It was also about how you used your smart phone. 

     On a walk near Union Square in San Francisco a few years ago I realized that Bluetooth wireless technology leveled the playing field between the self-absrorbed and the unconcerned. Business people who walked down busy streets talking on their smartphones without holding the phone to their ears blended with random people who simply enjoyed walking down busy streets talking to themselves.

     A half-century ago, Marshall McLuhan was widely quoted for titling a book (and telling the world that) The Medium Is The Message. According to his eldest son, Dr. Eric McLuhan, Marshall McLuhan’s publisher mistakenly titled the book The Medium Is The Massage.  When the author heard about the typo, his response was “Leave it alone! It’s great, and right on target!”. Television was the message, not the content. And television was also the massage.

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     Technology is a tool. And McLuhan knew that when he posited “We shape our tools, and then our tools shape us.”Fast forward to 2018 and we don’t have to speculate on what McLuhan might say about the age of the smartphone. In his 1964 book Understanding Media, he wrote, “The medium [is the message because it is the medium] that shapes and controls the scale and form of human association and action.” Next time you’re walking down a busy street, pay attention. Perhaps you’ll agree that my Union Square observations seem much more rational because in reality, we’re not all talking actually talking on our smartphones.


David Steffen

© David Steffen 2018


What The GOP Could Learn From Apple.   Leave a comment

January 24, 2013

Ideas and Ideas

My daughter called this morning. She had time to kill while waiting for her car to be repaired at a local Bay-Area garage, so she stopped in at the Village at Corte Madera, a high-end shopping mall in Marin County, California. She discovered something new and called to ask if I knew that Microsoft had a retail store. I told her I knew Microsoft had opted to move into retail a few years ago. My brain seems to have a memory that Microsoft (and other Wall Street-based psychics) originally pooh-poohed the idea of a computer or software maker going into retail when Steve Jobs chose to go retail with Apple stores in 1999 only two years after many of the same business people questioned Apple’s very ongoing viability.  (Computer maker Michael Dell suggested in 1997 that he had a simple solution to Apple’s 1997 woes: “I’d shut [Apple] down and give the money back to the shareholders”.  Where and what is Michael Dell’s vision today?)

The first Apple Store opened in 2001, and the success of the Apple Store concept is breathtaking, as witnessed by 400 stores currently operating (or soon to open), the profitability of the stores, and the expansion of the Apple brand during the past decade. Mac enthusiasts were ready for a retail store to call home. With all deference to Circuit City, Best Buy, and so many other stores (here today or now out of business) that carried little or no Apple products, Jobs knew that the Apple brand needed something larger: a broader exposure to reach a larger audience. The proof of the accuracy of Jobs’ vision and the inaccuracy of the Luddites and doubters has been born out in Apple’s profitable stores around the world, in the cross-pollination of Apple products where shoppers can go in to look at an iPod and discover a MacBook Air; go in for an iPhone and come out with an iPad too. Regardless of the recent drop in Apple’s share price, this is still the most visionary company in the consumer electronics business, a proven innovator in consumer technology, and unmatched in the world of consumer enjoyment. It’s about refining ideas and bringing new ideas to the world. It is about not playing it safe. With apologies to grammarians everywhere, it’s about risking much to succeed much.

This is where the GOP connection comes in. The GOP cannot come to grips with an obvious reality:  the concept of risking much to succeed much. Microsoft may yet succeed with their venture into retail, although the traffic in their stores to date suggests otherwise. The GOP hasn’t had a new idea in 50 years. They continue to regurgitate old ideas and old philosophies in a high-speed race to the past. If only American television consisted of Ozzie & Harriet, Leave It To BeaverMy Three Sons, and The Lawrence Welk Show. That’s essentially the freshness of GOP ideas and, incidentally, the hue of their loyal followers.  Their mantra during much of the first Obama term (and publicly articulated by Kentucky’s Senator McConnell in October 2010) was dedicated to Obama’s failure: “The single most important thing we want to achieve is for President Obama to be a one-term president.”  On November 6th the world saw just how that worked out. By contrast, there was almost nothing but support from the GOP for the George W. Bush march to war with Iraq in 2002 and 2003; there was no effort by the GOP controlled congress to budget for and pay for the wars President Bush initiated. They were, in congress-speak, “Off the books”. In layman’s terms, the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq were un-budgeted. Hence an additional (minimum) $3 Trillion in deficit spending was added during the Bush presidency. At the same time, no sacrifice (other than the demands on the lives of the military personnel and their families) was requested of us by the GOP.

Now we’re having renewed talks about the deficits. Yet the GOP has consistently chosen to demand one way to solve the deficit: cuts, cuts, and then, more budget cuts. Most Americans agree that we cannot cut our way to a balanced budget any more than we can tax our way to a balanced budget. We need a realistic approach to solving the problem, but this inauguration week, the GOP has elected to delay real effort to create a balanced approach. The house, under Mr. Boehner’s presumed leadership, voted to (essentially) freeze the debt ceiling for three months but “allow” the Treasury Department to exceed the ceiling without any further approval from congress. Boehner’s vision is all of three months. Here, once again, is a GOP unwilling to place a balanced bill on the house floor, or agree to negotiate the inclusion of revenue (tax) increases to help achieve the balance. In Boehner’s vision, he’ll sit down with Wally and “The Beav”, put on some Lawrence Welk music, and wait for something to happen. In Boehner’s world it is more important to continue as Speaker of the House than to show real leadership and negotiate with the Democrats. Mr. Boehner: it’s time for you to risk much to succeed much.

David Steffen

© 2013 David Steffen

So Long Steve . . . .   1 comment

October 8, 2011

. . . . and thanks for all the bytes.

I was 15 years old and a fan of a television show called Shindig. One evening in 1963 the Righteous Brothers were the featured performers. Instead of one of the nuggets from their repertoire of blue-eyed soul, they performed something different. Still bluesy, yet melodic in a new way for them, with production values that they had not previously incorporated into their recordings. The song was “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feeling” and the record was produced by the still infamous Phil Spector. The next morning I went to the one record store in the city of Milwaukee that I knew would have it, and there it was. I bought it, took it home, and still have that single. It became the biggest hit for the Righteous Brothers, one of the most played recordings ever on American radio, and to this day is a great listen.

Almost twenty years later I was living in Newhall, California, the city now known as Santa Clarita. In those days it was an L.A. bedroom community just off Interstate-5. Lyons Avenue was the main drag, and Newhall’s rural nature was reflected in the age of the city. It had a college (California Institute of the Arts), classic old construction and newly created tract-house subdivisions. There was a large major park, a legacy of the 250+ acre estate owned by early film star William S. Hart. When we moved to Newhall it was more old California—read that as “tired”—than nouveau. But it was friendly, comfortable and more importantly, it was affordable. We stayed there 13 years.

About a half-mile from the interchange where I-5-met Lyons Avenue stood one of many strip-malls, and in a small retail space on the east end of the strip was something I had never entered before: a computer store. I walked in and became fascinated by this new concept, displaying numerous small personal computers, including something by this company called Apple Computer, and the computer I looked at was dubbed the Apple II. (I never saw an Apple I.) I bought an Apple II that day.  I then spent some time trying to figure out what I could do with, what was for me, a great leap forward. I had all the needed peripherals (although that’s not how I remember they were described.) These extra gadgets included a dot-matrix printer, a floppy drive (5″ variety), and a monitor. I wasn’t a computer geek or nerd, but I was thinking about what this new electronic device might actually contribute to my life.

A few years later, in 1983, I heard about the impending launch of a new computer from Apple and I heard the company would be running a special one-minute ad on the upcoming Superbowl. As 1983 turned into 1984, the football season came to its usual conclusion on January 22nd, with Superbowl XVIII. And beyond the Oakland Raiders whipping of the Washington Redskins, Apple’s new computer, the MacIntosh, was launched with the now famous “1984” ad, directed by Ridley Scott. Like the Righteous Brothers’ performance twenty years earlier, I was once again motivated to go and buy something. Unlike that hunt for the Righteous Brothers new single, all I could do was look at the MacIntosh as they weren’t yet in my local store. I put a deposit down. I wanted one. And when I finally got it home, I knew that this was an entirely different idea in a home computer; obviously it was a success.

I still have that original Mac on my bookshelf. Every couple of years I plug it in and test it. It still works. About 1985 I migrated to a Mac at my office—part of one of a few small Apple-islands in the middle of many IBMs at A&M in Hollywood. I also had a 1993 Powerbook 160 (kept that one too), at least three desktop Mac’s, a G4 Powerbook, my 2007 MacBook, plus an iPod. All of this is simply part of my little homage to Steve Jobs. I can’t fall in lockstep with most of my other Mac friends and suggest that everything Jobs or Apple did was great. (Think Lisa, or Cube.) But even the post 1997 failures were aesthetic successes.

My purchase of Apple products wasn’t, isn’t, about blind devotion. Rather they reflect my appreciation for well-designed, high quality, adaptable ideas, albeit at a higher price. Jobs’ mantra included a concept of design that essentially says, give the consumers what they want before they know they want it. His private nature, limited wardrobe, mercurial personality, were only a few manifestations of the genius of Jobs. He was very much like the best record label owners and producers I had the pleasure of working with during almost three decades in the music industry. They had an ear for great songs and great performers and an ability to anticipate where music was going. Jobs had an eye for great design and had a similar vision, although on a far grander scale. This week people have made numerous comparisons to Apple.  I’ve heard the names Google, Facebook, and Twitter, as examples of other, ostensibly, successful companies that compare to Apple. Profits aren’t the same as vision. A fusball table, a free massage, or organic food in the cafeteria don’t a culture make. Everything Google, Facebook, and Twitter are attempting to sell us is derivative. When they are able to lead the market with unique successes, for 20 or 30 years, call me. Until then, stop the comparisons. And Steve, rest easy and stay foolish.

David Steffen

© David Steffen 2011

Posted October 7, 2011 by Jazzdavid in History, Obituary, Technology, Uncategorized

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