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Weekly Column

The Walt Within: What If Disney's Prize Wasn't Pixar, but Jobs?

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

I was wrong.

No, not about phone and wire-tapping -- more on that below -- but on the Disney-Pixar merger. What if, instead of having to accept the board presence of Steve Jobs as a cost of getting Pixar's animation talent and film library, Disney actually views the transaction as buying Pixar TO GET Steve Jobs and then gaining the animation bits as a bonus? If Disney CEO Robert Iger is really an exceptional leader, he'll see it exactly that way.

I am not a big Steve Jobs fan. No fawning here. I once called him a sociopath in a book that was translated into 18 languages, and I don't take it back now. But even a sociopath has his moments, and I am beginning to see that this moment belongs to Jobs.

What made me come to this understanding was reading an op-ed piece this week in the New York Times written by film historian Neal Gabler, who is just finishing a monumental book about Walt Disney. You'll find the essay among this week's links.

Assuming that Gabler knows what he is writing about, having spent several years getting inside the head of Walt Disney, then Disney and Jobs have a lot in common. Both were iconoclasts and loners, driven by creative visions and always a bit out of sync with their peers. Both were dreamers, but dreamers who for the most part realized their dreams. Both believed that the purpose of being in business was to create a unique product that came to define an experience for customers. Rod Canion and Michael Dell and Ted Waitt never talked about user experience, but Jobs and Disney did, right from the beginning of their careers.

What Jobs created at Pixar by allowing it to be (this is his only company, remember, where he stayed out of the day-to-day operations) is an environment where technology might have run, Tron-like, over character and creative sensibilities but somehow that didn't happen. At Pixar, technology drives character rather than characters being spray-painted on technology. What Disney gets from Pixar is, of course, the cancellation of most animated films in development or production, but that's balanced by a separate slate of films that will gross two, three or four times as much with all that now going to Disney. In this trade, Disney loses nothing and gains everything.

But Pixar and a trunkload of new theme park characters are the least of it. Disney is in the film, TV, sports, publishing, and hospitality industries, but none of its major competitors -- none -- are run by people who come to their positions with anything like an artistic drive or a real sense of what their customers want. Does Sumner Redstone understand MTV? Does GE have an artistic molecule in its "lop off the bottom 10 percent" corporate culture? Does Rupert Murdoch really understand his own success and its ultimate cost? Does ever-imploding Sony even know what to do with its music and movie empires? No, no, no, and no.

If Robert Iger creates a miracle at Disney, which I think he will, that miracle is Steve Jobs. We're in a new century with new realities, but we haven't yet found a new archetype for enlightened corporate power. Bill Gates? Give me a break! What we have are people in power who have no muse and wouldn't recognize one if they could even hear her. Steve Jobs knows his muse.

For the entertainment industries, the next 10 years will be the most revolutionary in a century. Broadcast TV as we knew it is going away, replaced by a Chinese entertainment menu of such complexity that even knowing what's "on" tonight will be beyond the abilities of most viewers. At some point, too, movies will be subsumed into television and recorded music will find its own new place with new rules. This will be Steve Jobs's world and we'll all just be visitors. It's obvious to me and, evidently, to Iger, too.

The trick here is in knowing how to get the best product for the least money. Jobs is not opposed to spending money, but he is determined to get more for his money than anyone else. Look at the books of Apple and Pixar to understand this concept. Against a century-old tradition of corporate bloat, Jobs successfully preaches (and proves) that smaller is really better. How else can Apple compete with Microsoft AND Dell and HP, and still have $8 billion in the bank? Because smaller is better and cheaper, too, when it comes to creative development.

I still don't like Steve Jobs. I've known too many people he has hurt. But this is clearly his time, maybe even his century. And what of Bill Gates? Bill Gates is a very successful philanthropist, but he's no Steve Jobs.

Nobody is.

Well, maybe Oprah.

Bill once told me that there was no way that Steve could win, so he wondered why Jobs was even still in the game?

Bill now knows why.

Now for a final word on wiretapping, the NSA, and you, which were the primary topics of my last two columns. This last thought comes from an old friend of mine who is conservative in the very best sense and knows what he is writing about:

"Traffic analysis, at the NSA? I'm tempted to be sarcastic, but I won't be. As you might know, I started a company a few years ago with a former NSA guy -- somebody who was a cryptographer and Russian linguist on those submarines that snuck into Soviet harbors to tap their phone lines -- and we applied traffic analysis to Internet discussion groups to identify opinion leaders, conversation trends and so forth. We used a lot of techniques that were developed or applied to law enforcement. And we didn't use anything that violated anybody's security clearances... really!

"(My company) was acquired by a business intelligence company funded by the CIA venture capital outfit. Apparently the stuff I invented is now in the hands of a couple of intelligence agencies, including Homeland Security.

"I'll tell you what I think the most troubling thing about all this is. It's easy to see whatever pattern you're looking for. It's like curve fitting in the stock market -- looks beautiful historically and maybe even in the short run, but it's a disaster in the making. So we have these guys running the country who saw a non-existent pattern in Iraq that justified a war ... and now we're going to give them software that will make it easy to create the illusion of patterns of conspiracy.

"Your friend from the NSA was right, but it's worse than he suggests. It's not just that social network analysis casts a wide net. It's that without oversight by people who really grasp the mathematics and have some distance from the whole thing, they're going to see patterns where there aren't any.

"They have a history of that."

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