The magician of Macworld

There's no business like the show business of Steve Jobs, who pulled Apple's iBook and Pixar's "Toy Story II" from his Macworld hat.

Published July 21, 1999 10:00AM (EDT)

No wires. Nothin' but Net.

That's not Apple's slogan for its new wireless iBook, but it should be. During his Macworld keynote on Wednesday, interim CEO Steve Jobs -- the iCEO -- picked up one of the new eye-catching notebooks and passed it through a hoop as he browsed the Apple site.

The symbolism should be lost on no one.

It seems there's no business but show business, and Jobs knows how to play it; he doesn't just milk the crowd for hoots, but for customer dollars and loyalty. To drive home his show-biz savvy, Jobs had Noah Wyle, who played Jobs in the TNT movie, "Pirates of Silicon Valley," introduce him. (It seems the rumors of Jobs' dislike of Wyle's portrayal are false. And seeing the two together only highlighted Wyle's knack for nailing Jobs' mannerisms.)

To further cement Apple's ties to the entertainment industry, Jobs showed off QuickTime TV to the thousands of Mac fanatics gathered in New York. He also worked in several plugs for Disney, which distributes films produced by his computer animation company, Pixar.

You could have cut the synergy with a knife. Part of the QuickTime TV announcement was the addition of several online streaming channels, including ABC News, ESPN and the Disney Channel -- all properties of Disney Corp.

Jobs did wear his geek hat for long enough to demo the new iBook, due out in September. The new machines will come in two splashy colors, blueberry and tangerine, and they're pretty cheap. The bare-bones iBook will weigh in at 6.6 pounds and cost $1,599; for another $400 iBook users can go wireless -- plugging a base station into a regular telephone jack and wandering up to 150 feet from it.

Then Jobs screened a preview for "Toy Story II," the sequel to Pixar's out-of-the-park hit, scheduled for Thanksgiving release. "Looks like a good movie," he said, giving an "ain't I naughty?" smirk. "I think I'll see it."

Jobs' quirky behavior is a good thing. The computer industry could use more personality. Computers and the Internet may be changing the world and our lives, but why do most of the main characters in this grand play resemble dinner-theatre refugees?

Bill Gates? An evil genius who makes street mimes appealing in comparison. Michael Dell? Solid as a Texas steer. And as boring. But a Jobs keynote at Macworld is one of the more entertaining events in the industry these days, and the consummate showman pulled every trick out of his apparently bottomless hat to enthuse, excite and enflame the crowd with Macintosh mania.

He unveiled new television ads that feature soul music and hint at sexuality. And he took part in a harebrained demo of wireless networking that had Phil Schiller, Apple's director of worldwide product marketing, jumping off a catwalk while holding an iBook. Software measured Schiller's acceleration and transmitted it to Jobs' iBook in real time. For an industry that is more concerned with technology than drama, this was entertainment.

Jobs has understood this since he returned to Apple and engineered its Cinderella story turnaround. (Apple's share of retail desktop sales reached 6.7 percent in May, double that of a year ago, according to the ZD Infobeads research firm.) Yes, the iBook is cool, if a little goofy looking, resembling a breath mint on steroids even more than the iMac does. And yes, it's a hot machine with impressive stats. But it won't be the 300 MHz G3 processor, the 32 Mbytes of RAM, the 56k modem, the built-in Ethernet, not even the low price tag that moves these things out the door.

No. What will sell the iBook is that Jobs understands that consumers want more than megahertz and memory -- they want to be entertained.

By Chris Allbritton

Chris Allbritton is the former national cyberspace writer for the Associated Press.

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