San Francisco, 2007. Four people are standing around a small circular table: Steve Jobs, the chairman of Starbucks, rock singer KT Tunstall, and me. One of us clearly doesn’t belong. Steve, oblivious to my presence, is knee deep in one of his legendary sales pitches. Apple security gives me the stern smile that says “You can stay, but you can’t participate.” And suddenly I’ve got a close up view for one of the most fascinating exchanges of our time. What the heck is going on here?
It’s September 5th and Apple is holding its big fall press event at Moscone Center, a few months after having shipped the first iPhone. Aside from a vague rumor that the (remaining) Beatles might show up, one is quite sure what today’s event is set to entail when the invites go out. It turns out to be all about the iPod instead: the first iPod touch is introduced, and the third generation “fatty” iPod nano is unveiled with video playback. Despite not having a grand slam new product this day, Steve Jobs is nonetheless delivering the presentation with his usual flair. Then, as it turns out, the British rocker performing is not Paul McCartney but instead KT Tunstall, who at the time was all over the radio.
End of presentation, and it’s the customary time to move into the next room to get some hands-on time with the newly introduced products, some of which won’t hit the market for a month or more. With all the tables full of products in a long row down the narrow hallway, and figuring everyone else will stop at the first table first, I head straight to the last table. I pick up the new iPod nano and begin playing around with it… and then I realize I’m directly across the table from Jobs.
Here’s the cofounder of Apple, the prodigal son who brought the company back from the brink, the guy who can get the biggest tech journalists in the world to fly across the country on a whim, the rock star of a CEO who can get whatever actual rock star he wants to show up and perform at his gigs, standing across from me, and he’s got company. Starbucks is the newly announced iTunes partner, and so its chairman Howard Schulz is with him. So is KT Tunstall. Steve is hanging out with the Starbucks guy and a rock star chick, and instead of merely kicking back, he’s trying to sell them on the new iPod nano.
He shows KT how the screen on the new nano is wide enough to support video playback. He turns to Howard and brags that they’ve managed to get video into a $199 product. And he doesn’t yet realize that he’s got additional company. Other journalists in the hall start to figure out what’s going on down at the far end of it, and they begin working their way toward the spectacle. Is this intended to be some kind of accidental-intentional public show? Or is Steve merely showing off his new toys to his new friends at the end of the hall before the press is supposed to have made its way down there, and I’ve just blown the moment by instinctively making a bee line for the end of the hall? Apple security looks rather nervous as the crowd gathers around Steve. But then again, Apple security always looks nervous.
Regardless of what’s really going on, the moment can’t be mistaken: Steve Jobs already has his partnership inked with Starbucks, and has a rock star at his side, but he can’t help himself. Always the consummate salesman, he’s trying to sell these two people on his latest and greatest product, because come to think of it, it is pretty impressive that he’s managed to get video into that small inexpensive new nano. Then again, when you’re standing three feet from Steve Jobs while he’s demoing his new wares with that kind of persuasive enthusiasm, it can’t help but rub off on you.