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Walt's Shoes at Disney Could Be a Fit for Jobs

January 23, 2006|Dawn C. Chmielewski | Times Staff Writer

What does Steve Jobs want?

With Walt Disney Co.'s board scheduled today to consider whether to buy Pixar Animation Studios, Jobs, the mercurial visionary whose iPod transformed the way Americans consume entertainment, is being compared to Disney's late founder, the mercurial visionary whose theme parks sparked similar change half a century ago.

Like Walt Disney in his day, the 50-year-old Jobs is a perfectionist known to fuss over the number of buttons on a computer mouse. Jobs is a college dropout; Disney never finished high school. And with Pixar's mastery of computer-generated movies such as "The Incredibles," Jobs has taken the animation that Disney first popularized in the 1930s and not just re-energized it but made it box-office gold.

If Disney acquires Pixar, Jobs would join the company's board of directors, own the largest individual stake and become, by far, the most recognizable face on the company's corporate roster -- potentially overshadowing Chief Executive Robert Iger.

At present, "Disney doesn't have a guy who shakes the walls, a larger-than-life character like Walt," said Jeffrey S. Young, co-author of the Jobs biography "iCon Steve Jobs: The Greatest Second Act in the History of Business."

Jobs, a co-founder of Apple Computer Inc., has the brash confidence to assume that role. But if he does so, the man who once shaved his head and begged for alms in his search for enlightenment stands to inherit more than the mantle of the company's lionized founder.

People who know Jobs and analysts who have tracked his companies for years say the potential deal is notable less for what it would mean for Disney than for how it would expand the cult of Jobs.

"Let's be clear: Steve's not in this for the money," said analyst Tim Bajarin, who watched Jobs unveil the first Macintosh computer in 1984. "It's his original vision of doing something that would change the world that's important. This is another step in seeing him influence that vision and goal."

Jobs declined to be interviewed for this story, as did several of his closest friends.

Venture capitalist Michael Moritz once commented: "Almost everybody has an opinion of Steve Jobs, but very few people know him." That's because Jobs is a master at controlling his own image.

Often featured on magazine covers wearing his trademark black turtlenecks, Jobs has been more famous than his companies' market share would seem to justify. His products are innovative, but they don't always sell.

A savvy marketer with a keen eye for design, Jobs nevertheless has had to fight to rebuild Apple's share of the personal computer market, which is just less than 4%. And with big technology competitors lining up to challenge iPod, he cannot afford to assume that his company's must-have gadget of the moment will remain top-of-mind forever.

And that, some believe, is part of what's driving him to consider selling Pixar, whose seventh feature film -- "Cars," due in theaters in June -- is already rumored to be the animation studio's best film yet.

Selling Pixar to Disney would give Jobs two things he dearly wants, say those who have made it their business to study him. First, it would show the world that the Burbank-based entertainment empire needed his scrappy Emeryville, Calif., animation house to compete. Second, it would free him up to concentrate on the company that will cement his own legacy as an innovator: Apple.

"His interest is in either power or cultural impact," said Alan Deutschman, author of the biography "The Second Coming of Steve Jobs." The proposed sale would give him a little more of both.

Jobs, like Walt Disney, follows his gut instincts -- even when they defy market research, conventional wisdom or common sense.

When he first teamed with Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak in the 1970s, their tinkering in a cluttered garage came to typify the can-do mentality of Silicon Valley. Although Wozniak was credited as the better technician, Jobs was considered a magician of spin even then. He understood what was cool and knew how to persuade others to think it was cool too.

Early on at Apple, for instance, Jobs fought to make a laser printer, even as his colleagues dismissed the notion that anyone would buy a $7,000 printer. Jobs prevailed and desktop publishing was born.

"Typography used to be big business," said Young, the Jobs biographer. "There's no such business anymore. That's completely due to Apple. That's completely due to Steve Jobs, because he believed."

Similarly, the iPod was anything but an obvious hit when Apple unveiled it in 2001. At the time, stores were filled with big, clunky digital music players that barely attracted a listen from shoppers -- let alone billions of dollars in sales.

Jobs' doggedness and self-confidence have not always led him to success. In 1985, just nine years after founding Apple, he resigned from the company after a bitter power struggle with then-CEO John Sculley. He returned a decade later and has personally overseen Apple's resurgence.

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