Steve Jobs at 'D': When You're an App, You're an App All the Way

Time accelerates at the intersection of media and technology. Every few years, a cycle plays itself out, and once-mighties become no-longers while some little engine proves it could. This year, on my way to D, Kara Swisher and Walt Mossberg's reliably entertaining tech/media conference, I thought the biggest buzz would be about Meg Whitman and Carly Fiorina -- two former Valley CEOs now transforming themselves into grimly conservative politicians.

Then came the Apple news.

In June of 2003, when Swisher and Mossberg inaugurated their D conferences, Microsoft's market cap was closing in on $300 billion. Apple's market cap was a puny $6.09 billion -- too small to make the list of America's top 100 companies. Last week, Apple's market cap was $222.12 billion -- $3 billion higher than Microsoft. The only American company with a greater valuation: Exxon Mobil, at $278 billion.

Apple as the world's most valuable tech company? It does not compute readily. This is an enterprise that almost logged off -- several times. For decades, it was a one-note play: a single line of computers beloved mostly by designers and iconoclasts. But then, like many of you, I found I couldn't live without an iPod. I traded my Dell desktop for an iMac and my IBM laptop for a MacBook. I'm flirting with an iPhone, barely restraining myself from buying an iPad. (Others are not: someone buys an iPad every three seconds.)

There are enough people like me that a tectonic shift seems to have occurred while we weren't looking: Consumer products now matter more than desktops and business software. And this is just the first inning of that shift. If Apple's made the right bet -- and it hasn't made a wrong one in this century -- the computer I've been tethered to for the last 25 years may go the way of the typewriter. Bill Gates? Suddenly he seems like an iconic figure from the distant past, the Edison of computing.

Apple bigger than Microsoft -- it's beyond breathtaking.

The blunt fact of it loomed over the D conference like the spaceship in District 9.

And here, to start D8, was a 90-minute session with Steve Jobs.

D is not like other conferences. The bigshot guests don't make presentations or pose paternally over new product demos. They sit on leather swivel chairs, flanked by Walt Mossberg and Kara Swisher, or both. And then Swisher and Mossberg dig in.

The great fun of D is that Swisher and Mossberg are Old School journalists who believe, with Oscar Wilde, that there are no impertinent questions, only impertinent answers. They make an appealing team. Swisher is the Christiane Amanpour of Silicon Valley, witty and self-deprecating when nothing's at stake, a prosecutor when she sniffs out a lie. Mossberg is avuncular, with a kindly twinkle and a way of asking a CEO a brutal question as if he's doing the guy a favor.

But as soon as Steve Jobs stepped on-stage, it was clear that Swisher and Mossberg would coddle and cosset him -- he looked awful. "Skeletal" would be a euphemism; Jobs looked like Hugh Laurie's Greg House, as painted by El Greco. I didn't see how the audience would get past the shock of his appearance and the inevitable question it posed -- is he dying?

Then Jobs began to talk, and all questions about his health evaporated. He may or may not be dying; he is certainly living at the highest available intensity. And not because of the stock market's confidence in Apple. The market cap, he said, "is surreal -- it doesn't really mean anything." What does, he said, is maintaining very high standards in order to make great products.

There's a purity in his message and in his person that's mesmerizing. It makes him the CEO as esthete -- as un-American an image as they come. I can't think of another business leader who shares his fanaticism for elegant simplicity; he owns the category. And loves owning it. The longer he was on stage, the more I could see him gathering strength. By the end, I could almost picture him radiating something like holiness.

It's a selective holiness, for there is no cagier, more media-averse CEO than Steve Jobs. A few years ago, he assured one and all that nobody wanted to watch videos on a tiny iPod screen; he sure changed his mind fast on that. And as for his lack of interest in a phone.....

This time around, he described Apple TV as a hobby of a project -- and it will be, right until it's not.

"We're not going into search," he said at the D conference, even if Google pissed Apple off by launching a phone.

iAds, he explained, does not represent Apple's attempt to muscle its way into advertising -- it's just Apple's way of helping to "make its developers more money."

Privacy, he said, in a slap at Facebook that generated instant applause, "means people know what they're signing up for, in plain English" -- though others suggested to me that it also means Apple prefers not to share the data it collects.

I can understand how a CEO whose employee misplaced a prototype, only to see it surface on a Nick Denton-owned website, might well be tempted to say, "I don't want us to see us descend into a nation of bloggers" -- but on this point he was, simply, wrong.

No matter. After Jobs' interview, the conference seemed to become as streamlined as the iPad. That is to say, there was only one relevant question: Are you an app? If you were, good times -- when you're an app, you're an app all the way. If not, well....

"I'm not an app," I said, several times, the next day, and got a laugh every time. Could my site be one? Probably, and if I were asked very nicely, I'm sure I'd say yes. How could anyone say no?

In a time when it's hard to name American companies that make great -- and greatly admired -- products, Apple stands out. It knows what people willing to pay a price for beauty really want. And, year after year, it extends its product line to offer us something we didn't need but suddenly can't do without. No wonder Apple is the biggest success of any company not in the oil business. No wonder Steve Jobs is the king of American CEOs.

[Cross-posted from ]