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Weekly Column

The Best Revenge: Why the New iMacs Will Be Successful No Matter What They Look Like

Status: [CLOSED]
By Robert X. Cringely
bob@cringely.com

In 1999, I was commissioned by Vanity Fair magazine to write a story about the relationship between Bill Gates and Steve Jobs. While I know both men, I know them separately, not together, and I just wanted to better understand how they got along. The only hint I had was from a joint interview they did several years ago for Fortune magazine in which Gates said that when they were together, Jobs bossed him around. It is very hard to imagine anyone bossing around Bill Gates. I had to know more.

So I contacted Steve and asked for some time with him to talk solely about his relationship with Bill. Steve's first response was to call the editor-in-chief of Vanity Fair to discuss the story. This gives some insight into Jobs: I predict that whenever his children have trouble at school Steve doesn't call the teacher, he calls the Superintendent of Schools, and that's only if the Secretary of Education is out of town. A short negotiation followed in which Steve agreed to do the interview, but only if I talked to Bill first.

Neither Bill Gates nor Steve Jobs is anywhere close to what one might define as "normal," but in these procedural things, Gates is a lot more normal than Jobs. It took a month or so to arrange, but I eventually had an hour with Bill, during which we spoke only about his relationship with Steve. I still have a tape of that interview, which was VERY interesting, but I promised I wouldn't use it for any other project, so it remains inside my fireproof safe.

The promised interview with Jobs never happened. His excuse was that the anti-trust case against Microsoft had reached a point where it would have been imprudent for Jobs to comment on Gates. Come back when the case is over (or Hell freezes, whichever comes first).

While I suppose there may have been some legal reason not to talk, I really doubt that was the issue. Rather, Steve Jobs just liked snubbing the world's richest man. It was classic Jobs, and I should have seen it coming. We both should have. So the Vanity Fair story never happened.

One thing that Gates told me in that interview was he didn't understand why Jobs had gone back to Apple at all. "Why would he do that?" Bill asked. "He has to know that he can never win."

Now let's jump to the present, specifically to this week's introduction of the new flat screen iMac at the MacWorld show in San Francisco. There, too, the darker pundits were coming to pretty much the same conclusion as Bill Gates: The new iMacs, while pretty in a baked Alaska kind of way, aren't going to return Apple to its glory days. It didn't matter how good the iMacs were, Apple was too far behind to ever catch up.

None of this matters to Steve Jobs. It took me a long time to figure this out, but he is quite content with the status quo. That's because Steve's definition of success is different from Bill's, and from that of most other people in the computer industry. Success to Steve means getting his own way. That's all. Forget about market share. It's all about longevity and personal dominance.

Apple's longevity was assured by this week's iMac announcement, but not for the reasons the pundits talked about. The new iMacs will be successful — very successful — for reasons that have almost nothing to do with their clever design, and almost everything to do with market demographics. There are six million iMacs in the world, and the oldest of them are three years old. Three years is two product generations (remember the old iMac and then the new iMac and now we have the new new iMac — each 18 months apart) and Cringely's First Law says that computer users are unwilling to be more than one generation beyond the state of the art. As a result, those who can afford to do so buy a new computer every three years. Mac owners can afford new computers, especially on the way out of a recession.

So what we know for sure is that six million old iMacs are going to be replaced over the next three years. We also know, if we know anything at all about Apple users, that those six million owners won't replace their iMacs with a Dell or a Gateway, they'll buy another Mac — a new new iMac. All Jobs has to do is not screw it up, and he'll sell at least another six million computers. Not screwing it up means improving performance (moving from the G3 to G4 PowerPC processor is a big jump and makes the new iMacs among the most powerful computers available) and changing to the LCD screen. This significant improvement in not just one but two dimensions guarantees those six million sales. Whether the computer looks like a baked Alaska or a payphone doesn't matter at all because people are ready to buy. And the price that seems so high to the experts, well, it is the same price most of these people paid the last time around, so why lower it?

There is no way these computers can lose, no matter what they look like. True, they have a distinctive design, and the frustrating lack of expandability that Jobs loves, but that is incidental.

But Gates is still right, that no matter how cool these new computers and their software are, they won't be enough for Apple to "win." And here is where we have to understand the difference between winning in Gatespeak and Jobspeak. When Gates speaks about winning he means WINNING, the whole enchilada, mastery of the universe. At this point in his career, every thought that comes out of Bill Gates' mind is grandly strategic. Steve Jobs, on the other hand, thinks solely in terms of tactics, not strategy. His wins are today, tomorrow, next week, next quarter. He revels in every little chance to push people around and make things the way he wants them to be. He can't help it. It was a bad strategy, for example, to snub Gates with Vanity Fair, but in the tactical mind of Steve Jobs, it was brilliant.

In Steve Jobs' mind, he has already won. Those of us who last for a few decades in this business find our own kind of peace and Steve Jobs' is best exemplified by the George Herbert quote, "Living well is the best revenge." Apple's future as a boutique computer company is secure. He dominates Apple completely. When he doesn't feel like being a high tech mogul, he can be a movie mogul, something Gates will never be. In Steve's mind, he has the best of everything. Apple software is cooler than Windows will ever be. Palo Alto, where Jobs lives, is trendier than Seattle. Even Jobs' plane, a Gulfstream V, is cooler than Gates' Challenger 604. It goes on and on. Gates has never even considered this latter point, but I'll guarantee you that Jobs has, and he revels in it.

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