Thoughts About Steve

Steve Jobs 1955- 2011Everyone who has worked around technology the past few decades has a Steve Jobs story. Some have observed Jobs at a distance and felt the impact of his creativity and decisiveness, others have worked with him directly and more explicitly experienced his creativity and decisiveness. No meeting with Jobs is forgettable. Most meetings with him begin with a non-disclosure agreement, and since no one is quite sure of the statute of limitations he expects, I shall tread carefully through this post while still sharing some of my own observations.

So much has been said and written about Steve Jobs in the past week it is almost daunting to try to add to the collection without being redundant. In a recent profile on CNBC Titans, Jobs was portrayed in a balanced manner, fully celebrated as the Thomas Edison of our time, of course not without a few bumps in his long and winding road, personal and professional. The day after the announcement that Jobs would no longer be CEO of Apple, Walt Mossberg in the Wall Street Journal expertly assessed the legacy of Steve Jobs as someone who changed the way we live. Coverage and analysis have poured onto the web from professional and citizen journalists, the very volume of which speaks to the somewhat incomparable significance of his contributions.

My personal experiences with Jobs were mostly tied to the launch of the iMac, right after he returned to Apple in 1997. We had just launched a games label at Broderbund Software called Red Orb Entertainment, and Jobs invited us to be part of his new beginning. Riven: The Sequel to Myst, developed by Cyan Worlds, and The Journeyman Project 3: Legacy of Time, developed by Presto Studios, were both largely created on Macs by Mac devotees, so it was easy and natural for us to get onboard. Everything Jobs promised us happened, from the billboards to the print ads to inviting Cyan President Rand Miller to share in the keynote at the Macworld Expo. The iMac was unique, Jobs’s vision was unique, and he wanted unique products to be associated with its beauty. That was the beginning of Apple’s resurgence, and it was magical.

What was most impressive about the return of Jobs was how quickly he brought the core values back to the company that seemed to have evaporated with his initial departure. Meetings at Apple in the non-Jobs years had become, to say the least, painful. Apple had forgotten what was special about it, that its publishers and developers were a unique bunch, and that fully democratizing the Apple universe would serve no one customer well if the core values of Apple were not embraced. Upon Jobs’s return, those core values returned in real-time and included with stunning mandate:

• Intuitive user interface is not optional. If a customer needs a manual, something is wrong. I remember when we received very first prototype iPod, no one in the house knew what it was, but within five minutes of it landing on our doorstep we had it synched and working with iTunes. How much more intuitive does it get than getting a new high-end gadget that never previously existed and have it working flawlessly without instructions?

• Innovation is meant to leapfrog entrenched competitors. The iPod wasn’t a better MP3 player, it was a new vision of how music could be enjoyed. The iPhone wasn’t a better cell phone, it was a lifestyle device that put a computer in your pocket. The iPad wasn’t a better tablet, it was an all media delivery system that is light, fast, simple, and elegant. If Jobs was going to make incremental change, it would be on later versions of his own products. The products he introduced to market were to be leapfrog inventions.

• Think Different is much more than an advertising campaign. Think Different is an intellectual construct that begins by defying grammar and doesn’t end until we have exhausted elimination of the ordinary. It is sometime said the difference between a cult and a religion is how long a movement lasts, and for many devotees, Think Different is something of a religion. It forces us to challenge ourselves to achieve the impossible, and then when we achieve it, make it look simple to everyone else.

When I worked at Disney, I remember well the weekend we had a staff preview at our new theme park in Anaheim, Disney’s California Adventure. Disney had not yet bought Pixar, that was years away, so the relationship between the companies was quite separate. One of the attractions at the new theme park was a whimsical movie about the history of California hosted by Whoopi Goldberg that delved into what made California unique. That attraction no longer exists, but what I remember most about it was the section on Jobs, largely painting him not only as part of California’s history, but our nation’s economic advancement. The portrait was magnificent, because his contribution to the world through the Silicon Valley miracle was magnificent. It was more than California, it was more than technology, he was settling the new frontier. What felt weird to me was that what I was seeing was indeed history, but it was happening now, current events, a real man and a real life changing the lives of all of us with each new idea and grand leap forward. I never got to meet Walt Disney or Henry Ford or Sam Walton, they were more icons to me than tangible people. Steve Jobs had become part of our lore while he was still young and his legacy was unfolding in our time.

Yet of all the emblematic impact of Steve Jobs, what resonates most with me is what he means to the notion of reinvention. Here is a guy who was driven out of the very company he founded by the very fellow he had invited to help him run it. Had he done nothing else after that event he would have forever been part of the Silicon Valley story. Then he founds another company, then Apple falls on almost unrecoverable hard times because it has lost its way and he returns, embracing that new-new thing called the Internet and helping chart its hockey-stick future. As a sideline, he buys a small computer graphics company from George Lucas and helps guide it to become one of the most successful entertainment production studios of all time.

Like so many others, I am trying hard not to write a tribute, but instead capture the spirit of what the contributions of Steve Jobs can mean to every one of us, whether or not a devotee. The point is that reinvention is possible no matter how hard we fall on our face, and that is a lesson always worth re-learning. Reinvention is not the stuff of storybook fables and pep talks, but the stuff of necessary and vital resilience. We need concrete examples to see that reinvention is possible, that lives and devices and ideas can be reinvented if we have the will and commitment to Think Different.

For me, that is the legacy of Steve Jobs. All that he has accomplished in a lifetime is astonishing, but like his very small peer group of great visionaries who have led our economy forward, it is the abstract notion of reinvention that I see and feel whenever he is present, nearby, referenced, or invoked. No matter how many English teachers correct us, I hope we will never stop saying the words Think Different, attributing them appropriately, and giving all we can to reinvent the legacy.

Fleeting Moments in iHistory

Why don’t internet brands make comebacks?

myspaceWith the recent attention on onetime market leaders AOL, Yahoo, and MySpace to inject new creativity into their platforms, I have been talking with a number of people about why this notion isn’t business as usual, with the expectation that success is much more probable than unlikely. We are so quick in the internet age to exchange snarky remarks about last year’s fading nameplates, as if it were all but inevitable that a fallen giant cannot get up and march on. Why?

Well, aside from our gossipy predisposition to critique, there is a good reason we take a skeptical point of view about internet brands that have seen better days—in almost all cases, those were their best days. Major turnarounds don’t seem to be the norm. Sadly, they don’t seem to be out there much at all. We can point to several works in progress where noble efforts are underway, but we can’t really write a business school case study on a revamp that is making history and ripe for the textbooks.

Although this is reality, it does not make sense, certainly not good business sense.

Most traditional brands go through life cycles: they are cool for a while, then something inevitably goes wrong—operational mishaps, disruptive entrants, or market forces—then visionary management attacks the problem and turnarounds do happen, sometimes monster turnarounds. Think about what happened with the rise and fall and rise of Disney, the same but even more so at Apple, the customer win back at Coke after the public rejection of new-Coke, multiple cycles up and down at Sony, the same to a lesser extent at MTV. All of these instances gave management—often new management—a starting point for the very real consideration of turnaround plans. Management carries out the traditional SWOT (Strengths-Weaknesses-Opportunities-Threats) analysis, and the discussion centers around how probable the turnaround plan under consideration might be, not a passive discussion of should we bother. You always bother.

Look at what happened at the Wall Street Journal—newspapers have been pronounced on their way to the graveyard, but the brand has never been stronger and circulation is growing on multiple platforms. That is giving the New York Times hope, the Los Angeles Times as well. You always try because the asset you have is too valuable not to try. CBS, NBC, ABC, HBO, they all have good and bad seasons, but you don’t think about walking away after a bad season. Look at MSNBC, how it struggled out of the gate, now it has an identity. Sticking with an established beachhead can work, surely not all the time, but there are so many examples where the uphill effort is proven to be worth it.

Like internet brands that have enjoyed success, non-internet brands once in the limelight come to the outset of a turnaround with some remaining loyalty, mass reach, measurable unaided awareness, and some core value proposition. The fact that tastes have changed or tactics have failed doesn’t mean you have lost everything; you just have a lot less of it. You have something to work with, so you don’t walk away. Your investors would not be pleased with those kinds of write downs.

Let’s think about the dotcom bubble and all the brands it birthed, starting with the portal wars—Excite (then Excite @Home), Lycos, Looksmart, Infoseek (then Go.com)—they all had huge followings! Now they are answers to trivia questions. What about Friendster, eToys, Netscape, NeoPets, Encarta, GeoCities, Pets.com, Webvan? These were all massively attended internet destinations, great names with tremendous followings built on innovation and creativity. Was there really nothing better to do with their identities than turn away?

I started to wonder whether our relationship with brands today is somehow different from our relationship two, three, four decades ago. Were we somehow more willing to give brands a second chance then that we are not now? Is this generation of consumers somehow wired differently? Have we come to a new understanding of inertia so that once cold something must stay cold? That would have been an easy answer, but one trip to the Apple Store will change your mind quickly. Spend a little time in the store with the other customers and you will soon be reassured how much a once loved, then dismissed, then reinvented brand can be loved anew. Ask tweens about Disney Channel, which they never would have been caught dead watching a generation ago, but now it too has been reinvented to become a trendsetter.

Brand laws may evolve, but they haven’t died.

What seems most ironic to me is that when you look at the giants of brand reinvention, the core turnaround strategy is not financial engineering, but rediscovery of the company’s roots in innovation. Disney expanded its theme parks, its own hotels, rebuilt its animation efforts, created the Disney Store, and rode a wave of home video before acquiring ABC and later Pixar and Marvel. Upon the return of Steve Jobs, Apple pioneered the iMac, then iTunes, then the iPod, then the iPhone, then the iPad, all the while building out the Apple Stores. Microsoft from a standing start entered the entertainment world with Xbox, as Sony had done prior to that with PlayStation. Clearly these involved massive investments, but they were bets on products and services, new ideas from talent and passion within the company.

Can we imagine a day when Google, Amazon, eBay, or Facebook are no longer top of mind with consumers? What about Netflix, LinkedIn, or YouTube? If history is a guide, it is entirely likely one of these or another equally strong internet property will fall out of favor. Are we likely to see it left to harvest? I would bet 100% the answer is no. Reinvention will be the order of the day, and revitalization will follow with new products, new services, and creative marketing to support those initiatives, no different from the offline world.

Internet brands are born of talent and passion—they are the very picture of innovation. So why if they can be invented with innovation can they seldom seem to be reinvented with innovation? Is the answer to be found in independence vs. acquisition by an umbrella company, where founding talent departs and corporate bureaucracy takes over? Possibly, but that seems more like an observation to me than a fait accompli. Just because a young company is bought on the way up or down doesn’t mean it cannot survive a downtown. The question has to be what is being done to address the downturn. If the downturn is being addressed through a product strategy with talent and passion, there is every reason to believe a new vision can have success. Just because it hasn’t happened doesn’t mean it won’t happen. We all have reason to want it to happen, because that creates more opportunity for the industry and sends the right message to customers, that we do listen to them and change can happen when we are serious about it.

Optimism as a driving force is always good. The change that happens in the analog world will translate to the digital world. When a once adored brand is down, root for reinvention.

Corporate Intelligence Radio is On The Air

Isn’t this where we came in… ?

My Turn
by Ken Goldstein
Game Daily, January 2004

Happy New Year! Holiday 2003 is now handed off to accounting, winners and would-be winners for the key selling season are now largely known, and one thing becomes certain: the uncertainty of a platform shift looms menacingly ahead.  Details will begin to unfold, and together we lean forward to the next frontier… but if history tells the tale, not before one last great harvest.

Thus our beloved game industry is presented with a significant opportunity over the next few years.  The entertainment community is taking note that games are a meaningful business opportunity, no longer a niche play.  Mainstream press and consumer audiences are taking note as well.  Since the turn of the Millennium we have seen a huge up-tick in consumer and business press devoted to games, not to mention dedicated cable TV channels now focusing on our universe.  My sense is that once again the challenge for our industry is one of creativity – how will we manage through the dip that so often precedes full acceptance of next generation platform evolution?

My fear is that because we have done such a good job squeezing performance out of our current platforms, we may squander these precious years – a time when we have a ripe audience for the innovation of our field, our art form, and when we could be meaningfully broadening our core audience, surging into the mainstream and building our future.

More specifically, my fear is that because we’ve maxed out technology on current platforms – games are as realistic as they are going to be in the near term and you can’t throw more polygons at a game to leapfrog the competition until new machines arrive – we will wait around for technology to push us forward rather than showcase and advance the field while we have the world’s attention.  Current trends seem to support that.  More and more games seem to be relying on pure outrageousness to drive hype, and not surprisingly, exploiting those all too familiar lowest common denominators.  The wow factor of current platforms is behind us, so why not get headlines the easy way: shock and awe.

I’m taking “My Turn” to challenge us as an industry to resist the pull of this platform shift to lull us into creative laziness.  I am in no way puritanical, there is nothing I would not do to defend our First Amendment rights, and I am not saying there aren’t businesses to be built on more exploitative titles.  What I am saying is that there are very good businesses, as well as interesting, creative and innovative games based on strong characters and storytelling, to be created if we make this a priority.   Examples already exist: Mario, The Sims, Oddworld, Animal Crossing, the Backyard Sports series.  But there are not enough.  Look at the past holiday release list and you won’t find a great deal of diversity – and for where our overall market stands, you might conclude we left money on the table as a result of a too narrow focus.  You see it coming every year at E3, just walk around and you aren’t surprised with tone we set for success.

I know what many of you are thinking.  You’re Disney, your brand compels you to pursue E rated, non-violent games.   While that is indeed true, I continue to believe our industry as a whole will benefit if we begin to offer a broader array of games to consumers, and a much deeper selection of non-violent games.  I’m also not necessarily speaking of E rated or children’s games.  The true market leaders of our industry, those who find repeat creative and financial success year after year, fully embrace the notion that it is smart business to make interesting games – even war games – without piling on gratuitous sex or violence.

If there is at last an underlying art and science to what we do that is a partner of commerce, then perhaps there is nobility in not letting our talent be exploited.  There is revenue, and plenty of it, to be found beyond the obvious.  The market will always decide what titles make it and while I am certain the young adult male audience always will support mature rated games, I wonder who is not playing games, or not playing very often, because the options we have presented are limited.  Simply put, we are not going to increase female gamer counts with the current top ten.  Roughly speaking, that is one in two human beings we continue to chose not to serve.  And yet, I have seen our own Toontown Online take the MMORPG genre into this realm, where boys and girls, gamers and non-gamers, parents and children all play in the same virtual space.  If there is a more hard core genre than MMORPG, I await the opportunity to play there as well.  Creative challenges are met by inspired individuals because they are driven by a muse, not seduced by easy money.  And by the way, in a platform shift, there is no easy money.  It will take every brain cycle we have to get our businesses to the other side.

Let’s not ride out the platform shift waiting for technology to push us creatively.  Let’s take the higher ground, take some risks, and do something interesting with our collective talents – and while we’re at it, let’s broaden the game market so that when we have more polygons connected through broadband networks, we have many, many more players who are waiting for us to deliver against our artistic potential.