Acting Up

The Macalope nails it in his point-by-point critique of John Heilemann’s lengthy cover story profile of Steve Jobs for New York Magazine last week. The Macalope writes:

So, here we have Jobs who the last 10 years have proved fantastically right and Heilemann who the same years have proved fantastically wrong. Why, again, are we expected to take Heilemann’s opinion on the matter of Apple and Jobs’ ability to perform?

The knee-jerk response to the Macalope’s piece is the oft-repeated refrain that you can’t criticize Apple or Steve Jobs without “Apple fanatics” jumping down your throat. But who’s the fanatic? It’s Heilemann and his editors who cast Jobs, and Apple’s customers, in religious terms. (“iGod”? Puke.) Heilemann is a talented writer, but his piece really is deeply flawed, and at times he painfully overreaches to portray Jobs in an unflattering light. E.g., describing Jobs’s entry on stage at the D: All Things Digital conference, Heilemann writes:

He saunters out onstage, and the first thing you think is, man, Steve Jobs looks old. The second thing you think is, no, not old: He finally looks his age. Well into his forties, Jobs appeared to have pulled off some kind of unholy Dorian Gray maneuver. But now, at 52, his hair is seriously thinning, his frame frail-seeming, his gait halting and labored.

Yes, Jobs appears to have lost weight since his bout with cancer. Yes, he did look particularly thin in August during the WWDC 2006 keynote. But he just looked thin. In the recent video from D and during this year’s WWDC keynote, he pretty much looked like his normal self.

Heilemann quite obviously had no access to Jobs himself nor anyone close to him, and the idea of someone who doesn’t want to talk to the media, even the esteemed New York Magazine, just doesn’t compute. Every person Heilemann quotes with attribution works for an Apple competitor, and Heilemann says mostly good things about their future prospects against Apple.

Heilemann’s central thesis is that the iPhone marks the beginning of a risky new “Fourth Act” in Jobs’s career. The first three acts are obvious: (1) the founding and meteoric rise of Apple; (2) 1985-1996, a decade in relative obscurity at NeXT and pre-Toy-Story Pixar; (3) 1997-today, the meteoric rise of Pixar and his triumphant return to and resurrection of Apple.

Arguing that the iPhone is a risky move for Apple is preposterous. What would be risky would be not to make a phone. The most significant flaws in the original iPhone are the slow EDGE network and the on-screen keyboard. Obviously, there will eventually be an iPhone that supports faster 3G data networking. And if it ends up there’s truly demand for a physical keypad, it’d be a lot easier for Apple to produce a future slider-style iPhone than it would be for any of their competitors to produce their own iPhone-quality software.

It seems clear to me that the iPhone is not a new “act”; it’s the natural extension of the third one. Apple’s two spectacular successes in the past decade are OS X (software) and the iPod (premium handheld consumer electronics). The iPhone is where they meet. Clearly this is where Apple has been heading ever since Jobs came back to the company. The only thing that’s surprising is that they were able to produce a device this small, with these features and battery life, so soon. The iPhone seems like something from 2010.

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