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Steve Jobs Answers (Nearly) All at D8

Earlier this month, the Wall Street Journal’s Walt Mossberg and Kara Swisher hosted the eighth annual D: All Things Digital conference, known in its most recent incarnation as D8. The conference has been bringing together industry leaders for conversations, demos, and interviews since 2003, with this year’s speakers including such notables as Microsoft’s Steve Ballmer, Avatar director James Cameron, and Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg.

Steve Jobs, featured as the opening night guest, sat down with Mossberg and Swisher for over 90 minutes (the full video interview can be found on the D8 Web site) to offer insights into everything ranging from Apple’s recent market cap advance over Microsoft to how Jobs spends an average workday.

And while this year’s WWDC keynote speech offered Apple fans the chance to catch up with its CEO, the D8 interview is a unique opportunity to watch Jobs follow an agenda set by somebody else. His responses may toe (or set) Apple’s party line, but he nevertheless had to respond to the questions Mossberg and Swisher were asking. Furthermore, with a heavy hitter like Walt Mossberg – the most powerful technology journalist in the world – serving the questions, it was as close to a conversation between equals as you’ll find. And unlike Jobs’s famously terse email messages, his answers here often provide interesting detail.

While much was covered in the interview, the choicest moments came when discussing Flash, Google, and the recent controversies plaguing Apple.

Flash — One of the first topics of conversation was Apple’s relationship with Adobe and Flash. Mossberg, referring to Jobs’s “Thoughts on Flash” essay, asked if it was unfair to consumers to cut them off from the commonly used technology. Jobs’s response centered on Apple’s history of embracing emerging technologies (in this case HTML5), while orphaning others in decline. He pointed to the first iMac’s jettisoning of the floppy drive and legacy ports – and the subsequent initial public ire over those decisions – as examples of Apple’s willingness to abandon technologies that are past their prime. According to Jobs, denying support of Flash on iOS
products was strictly a technical decision, based on Apple’s view that Flash is over the technological hill (and thus, as Joy of Tech put it, “sent to the island of Apple-banished toys”).

Jobs even seemed to get a little ruffled when recounting how, without provocation, Adobe started a press campaign against Apple’s abandonment of Flash. Noting that Apple and Adobe have many shared customers as a result of the Adobe Creative Suite, and that Apple had merely declined to support one of Adobe’s products, Jobs expressed incredulity at Adobe’s attack. He also noted that Apple had encouraged Adobe to get in touch when Flash was faster and more stable on the iOS, but that this invitation has yet to be met.

In the end, Jobs said that people will either buy Apple products or, if the company has chosen the wrong technologies to support, they won’t. But, cracking a smile, he noted that so far people seem to be liking the iPad.

Google — Jobs seemed most reticent to comment when the conversation turned to Google as a competitor. Several times Mossberg and Swisher attempted to prod him into articulating the current state of Apple’s relationship with the search giant, and whether he personally felt betrayed by Google’s emergence as a competitor, especially given that Google CEO Eric Schmidt once sat on Apple’s board. But Jobs kept his cards close to his chest. At one point, asked again by Mossberg about the relationship, Jobs responded, “My sex life is pretty good these days, how’s yours?” Whether he was mocking Mossberg’s insistence on the word “relationship,” or implying that the line of questioning had begun to dig too deep, Jobs
was clearly trying to get the journalists to back off.

Jobs said repeatedly that he did not see himself or Apple as competing with Google, but rather that Apple simply tries to make the best products it can, and that it was Google that chose to compete with Apple. Yet this tenuous distinction failed to hold water with his interviewers, and Jobs eventually agreed, after much nudging, that the two companies are competing. He acknowledged that in trying to make the best products they can, Apple is also trying to make better products than Google’s. But Jobs went on to say that while the two companies are competing, things needn’t get rude. To that end, he pointed to the fact that Google and Apple share various properties: that Android now supports iTunes songs, and that Apple makes use of
Google’s maps.

While Jobs clearly enjoys repeating his mantra that he’s solely focused on his products – and there is likely a lot of truth to this image of him with stunning tunnel vision – it’s clear that as the CEO of one of the world’s most ambitious companies, his competitors are on his mind at least some of the time.

Controversies — Finally, Mossberg and Swisher asked Jobs about the recent iPhone prototype debacle and the recent spate of suicides at Apple’s electronics supplier Foxconn.

With the iPhone 4 now unveiled, the prototype story has become old hat, but it’s interesting to hear Jobs talk about it. He said there’s a debate as to whether the prototype was left in a bar accidentally, or stolen out of the engineer’s bag (and the fact that the engineer wasn’t fired would seem to support the latter). And he went on to suggest that it’s an amazing, colorful story that would make a great movie, with its combination of theft, purchasing of stolen property, and extortion – he even suggested that there’s probably sex in there somewhere. (Much more of this, and Jobs will start sounding like the famously risque Jean-Louis Gassée, a high-ranking Apple executive in the 1980s.) Although Jobs disavows significant knowledge of
the case, it’s clear that Apple’s story differs significantly from the one Gizmodo has been telling.

Regardless, since one side of the case is up to the district attorney, not Apple, Jobs’s comments regarding how Apple responded are illuminating. Noting that several people had encouraged him to let the situation slide, Jobs said he thought long and hard about how to pursue the case, and in the end acted according to the same core principles he had 10 years ago, when Apple had almost closed its doors. Though he doesn’t quite say this, it would seem that he’s suggesting that Apple has succeeded because it focuses on the small details, whether in terms of product design or protecting product secrecy. Clearly, Jobs regards himself as having the same hunger and industriousness as when he returned to Apple, which bodes well for the company’s
fortunes over the next decade.

Regarding the Foxconn situation, Jobs said Apple was taking the suicides extremely seriously and that he believes Apple is perhaps the most diligent in the tech industry, or any industry, in its evaluation of working conditions in its supply chain. Apple publishes an annual Supplier Responsibility report detailing the working conditions, employee treatment, and environmental responsibility of its primary, secondary, and tertiary suppliers. He went on to emphasize that Foxconn is not a sweatshop – that in fact it provides its workers with restaurants, movie theaters, swimming pools, and hospitals (not bad for a factory!) – but that Apple is looking into the matter with concern.

One potential insight into the situation came when Jobs noted that many of the workers at Foxconn are only in their late teens and are living away from their poor rural communities for the first time. He noted that this drastic transition and separation from home may be a serious contributor to the difficulties facing some of these young people. He also said that both professionals from within Apple and outside hires were currently trying to understand the issues at hand. (Foxconn has recently said it will be raising worker salaries to reduce the pressure on workers to work overtime.)

Interview Recommended — While these topics were among the most dynamic sections of the interview, it’s always enjoyable to watch Steve Jobs. That’s especially true when he’s not working from a script while responding to journalists who aren’t afraid to push him for answers. If you find yourself with some spare time, I highly recommend checking out the D8 video linked at the start of this article.

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