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A Job for Mr. Jobs

January 18, 2005

IPod, you pod, we all pod. Or so it seems: Apple sold nearly 5 million of the sleek, hip digital music devices in its latest quarter, and that was before it unveiled a $99 "shuffle" version last week. The iPod craze is baffling in some ways, coming a full quarter of a century after the mania for Sony Walkmans. But then, the Walkman contained only one cassette at a time. The iPod can not only carry an entire music library, it can resurrect an entire computer company.

Apple's obituary -- and postmortem for that matter -- has been written repeatedly. The iconic maker of easy-to-use, beautifully designed computers seemed to relegate itself to the dustbin of history by failing to play with others in the "Wintel" universe inhabited by Microsoft, Intel and its PC licensees. Apple notoriously opted not to license its operating system and so remained in its own, ever-shrinking technical cul-de-sac. Apple devotees, smug in the knowledge that they had chosen more elegant machines, came to be seen as self-indulgent dilettantes by Wintel's huddled masses.

Steve Jobs, Apple's co-founder, was brought back to the company in 1997 to reverse its decline. Apple's market share in computers is still small, but there are two reasons to believe its future is bright. The first is the iPod (along with the online iTunes store where users download songs for 99 cents), which showed that Apple can leverage its creativity and the hipness of its brand to enter and dominate new segments in the consumer electronics field. The other is that despite its own strategy, Apple is starting to benefit from enhanced PC compatibility, thanks to the Web. With all our computer brains increasingly being outsourced to the Internet, and with e-mail providing the easiest way to share documents, the days of trying to shuttle diskettes between incompatible machines is coming to an end.

The iPod is a success that Apple can replicate on many fronts, which is why Jobs looked more than a little excited last week at the MacWorld show. The new mini-Mac he introduced, which retails at $499, could be Apple's Trojan horse into the video entertainment world, which still doesn't boast a dominant, all-encompassing hub that will link computers, TVs, digital recorders, stereos and -- who knows? -- sprinkler systems. And surely someone at Apple is thinking about an iPod that will gobble up your cellphone and personal organizer too.

Getting all our machines to get along with each other, and seem cool while doing so. That is a job for Mr. Jobs.

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