Will Digital Stuff Always Be Worse Than Analog?

ImageWhen I tweeted today that it’s getting tougher to do phone interviews because of poor-quality cell and IP telephony calls, I touched a nerve. “Bring back the Bell System!” said one tweeter.

The fact is, cell phone quality has never been great, but a lot of people, CEOs and executives included, now seem to use them almost exclusively, so the poor quality is more noticeable–and annoying. And while enterprise-quality IP phone systems seem fine, home versions like your cable company’s or Google Voice that more people are using still don’t match landlines.

Perhaps it’s just a transitional phase, before we get the unlimited bandwidth we’ve been promised for so long. But it seems like a long transitional phase.

And it’s not just phones. CDs still don’t sound as good as vinyl, and MP3 files are even worse. Do I even need to mention Internet video? Most people probably don’t notice that the average digital camera image can’t match the best film images, but film images taken with a good camera still have better resolution (or at least the grain looks better than pixels).

Of course, digital has its advantages. No skipping records, for instance. (Well, not actually true–my car CD player doesn’t like it when I hit a bump.) No snarled tape. Digital phones and music players are much more convenient to use, and do a whole lot more than just make calls. Videos taken with most digital cameras look a lot better than anything we used to take with tape-based camcorders.

I don’t mean to sound like an old crank, even if I might be. But I wish in the rush to digitize everything, we could remember that quality matters, and make that as important as convenience.

Five Small Stories About Steve Jobs

Lots of people who were closer to Apple cofounder Steve Jobs than I have written moving memorials to a man who, in an industry and a region where people love to say they want to change the world, actually did it. The Apple II, the Macintosh, the iPod, the iPhone, the iPad–and Pixar!–none of these would have happened, certainly not in the same culture-jolting way, were it not for Jobs’ imagination and determination.

Because I was busy enough watching Intel create the electronics revolution, chronicling Scott McNealy and Sun kicking Hewlett-Packard’s butt for awhile, and witnessing Jim Clark and Marc Andreessen birth the commercial Internet, I can’t share tales of watching the genesis of the particular revolutions Jobs sparked from a front-row seat. All I’ve got are a few small, even inconsequential tales of Steve Jobs from my brushes with him over the years. But I wanted to share them anyway in the hope that they add a little more color to the life of a man who brought so much to ours.

I met Jobs face-to-face for the first time just before he was to introduce, if I’m not mistaken, the NeXTcube computer in 1990. BusinessWeek writer Kathy Rebello and I visited Jobs to see the machine at NeXT’s offices in Redwood City, Calif. He was his usual charming self–and make no mistake, despite his well-deserved (and self-described) reputation as an asshole, he was very charming. And his enthusiasm was infectious even though I had doubts about whether he could widen NeXT’s wedge between Apple and Sun into a sustainable business.

I remember two things distinctly. One was his focus on the shape and design of the jet-black machine, which I recall him touching fondly. That love of good industrial design is something he clearly never lost.

The other thing I remember is that he nervously fingered the wedding ring on his finger. When I jokingly asked him if it perhaps it wasn’t fitting so well, he launched into a story about his grandfather, who was a machinist (if I remember correctly–though seeing that his adopted father Paul was a machinist, I wonder if I heard wrong). Anyway, he said his grandfather was operating a machine with his wedding ring on, and it got caught in the machinery, removing his finger along with it. So every time he felt the ring on his finger, it gave him a twinge.

Now, this was Jobs before his canonization as the savior of Apple, so perhaps it’s just an example of a CEO trying to make nice with reporters with a personal tale. Still, the story stuck with me precisely because it was such a human, uncorporate story to bother telling.

I also saw Jobs just a couple of times doing his famous product introductions. One was the introduction of the first NeXT machine at a huge gala event in San Francisco in October 1988, if I recall correctly, because BusinessWeek writer Katie Hafner needed help reporting on a NeXT story she was working on and I was the new guy getting sent to whatever needed doing. (She thought she was getting an exclusive, though Jobs apparently promised an “exclusive” to two other publications–vintage Steve Jobs.)

In demonstrating a built-in dictionary that could call up definitions with amazing speed, he said, “Hmm, what shall we look up? How about ‘mercurial’?” That was the most common descriptor of Jobs at the time, and his joke brought down the house. Like I said, he could be the most charming guy in the room when he wanted to conjur up his famous reality distortion field.

The next time I saw Jobs onstage was just three years ago in San Francisco at his introduction of the iPhone 3G at Apple’s Worldwide Developer Conference, helping out my BusinessWeek colleagues and Apple aces Peter Burrows and Arik Hesseldahl. I hadn’t seen Jobs in person in many years, onstage or anywhere else. Of course I knew about his health issues, but as I liveblogged the event, it still struck me how frail he seemed:

Maybe it has been far too long since I’ve seen Jobs speak in person. But he seems a little laid-back, even tired?

As it turned out, this appearance kicked off another round of speculation on his health. Even without the benefit of hindsight today, it felt to me that, at the least, Jobs’ ability to carry Apple entirely on his shoulders was fading.

Update: Oh, how could I forget that photo shoot? For a special issue on Silicon Valley in 1997, BusinessWeek had somehow gathered many of the leading lights of the Valley at that time. I later wondered how on Earth we made that happen, but there’s Jobs on the left, dressed characteristically with more style than the rest put together.

I don’t remember much about Jobs’ behavior during the shoot beyond his huddling with his friend and Oracle CEO Larry Ellison at one point. And maybe that was the point: While there was no doubt he had to be in that photo, he wasn’t yet Steve Jobs, the icon, he was the guy who had just returned to Apple after it bought NeXT and faced a huge uphill battle to save it. Still, he was Steve Jobs; I remember his letting the magazine know that he was annoyed about the photo because his white shirt stuck out from under his vest.

One last story: My wife and I used to frequent a small restaurant in downtown Palo Alto called Caffe Verona. One evening around 1999, more or less, we were getting coffee, and suddenly I noticed that ahead of me was Ellison. That was interesting enough, but then I saw him take his drink out to the small patio entrance–where sat Steve Jobs and his wife.

Being a reporter, and because I think neither recognized me in the dark, I took a seat outside a few feet away, hoping to overhear any juicy details about coming products, Silicon Valley gossip–whatever. Long after my wife went back inside to get warm, I kept nursing my cappuccino and pretending to read magazines. So what did I overhear?

A half-hour of talk about the details of macrobiotic diets.

It was a mildly funny story to tell for years afterward. After Jobs’ health issues, it became less funny. But I always thought it was significant for another reason anyway. Here was one (actually, two) of technology’s leading lights, and they somehow found time to pal around talking about everything but their businesses.

Ultimately, what I remember about Steve Jobs was not the showman, the icon, the visionary. I remember a real human being who just happened to change the world.

Questions About the Google-AdMob Deal–and How the FTC Answered Them

Today the Federal Trade Commission decided not to oppose Google’s proposed purchase of leading mobile ad firm AdMob, clearing the way for the $750 million deal to be closed. Given recent hints that the FTC’s staff might recommend the commission block the deal, the decision was something of a surprise. But as the FTC itself explained, “although the combination of the two leading mobile advertising networks raised serious antitrust issues,” there is in fact ample competition in what is after all still a nascent market.

The investigation raised several questions about not only the mobile ad market but the FTC’s stance on such deals in the Obama era. Here are some of those questions, and the apparent answers:

* Would the deal allow Google to dominate the mobile ad market?

Not at this time, the FTC said, but noted that that was a danger:

Google’s proposed $750 million acquisition of AdMob necessitated close scrutiny because the transaction appeared likely to lead to a substantial lessening of competition in violation of Section 7 of the Clayton Act. Those companies generate the most revenue among mobile advertising networks, and both companies are particularly strong in one segment of the market, namely performance ad networks. The Commission’s six-month investigation yielded evidence that each of the merging parties viewed the other as its primary competitor, and that each firm made business decisions in direct response to this perceived competitive threat.

* Are mobile ads a separate market from other online ads?

I’m not sure why mobile ads, which after all are simply ads that happen to appear on mobile device screens, are really a market separate from other online ads. Marketers, after all, usually view them as potential additions or substitutes to display ads or even search ads, and they can in fact be either of those. And if they view them as separate markets now, it’s likely they won’t stay that way as ad technology firms increasingly offer them as a package to marketers. But it’s clear from the FTC press release that FTC considers the mobile ad market distinct–and furthermore that it doesn’t matter how new it is:

The Commission stressed that mergers in fast-growing new markets like mobile advertising should get the same level of antitrust scrutiny as those in other markets. The statement goes on to note that, “Though we have determined not to take action today, the Commission will continue to monitor the mobile marketplace to ensure a competitive environment and to protect the interests of consumers.”

Mobile ad networks, such as those provided by Google and AdMob, sell advertising space for mobile publishers, who create applications and content for websites configured for mobile devices, primarily Apple’s iPhone and devices that run Google’s Android operating system. By “monetizing” mobile publishers’ content through the sale of advertising space, mobile ad networks play a vital role in fueling the rapid expansion of mobile applications and Internet content.

* Did Apple help Google clear the deal?

Um, clearly. According to the commission’s statement:

The agency’s concerns [about the Google-AdMob deal] ultimately were overshadowed by recent developments in the market, most notably a move by Apple Computer Inc. – the maker of the iPhone – to launch its own, competing mobile ad network. … As a result of Apple’s entry (into the market), AdMob’s success to date on the iPhone platform is unlikely to be an accurate predictor of AdMob’s competitive significance going forward, whether AdMob is owned by Google or not.

* Should Apple be afraid of the FTC?

Very afraid. Or at least it should expect intense scrutiny, if the rather detailed description of Apple’s role in this market is any indication:

These concerns, however, were outweighed by recent evidence that Apple is poised to become a strong competitor in the mobile advertising market, the FTC’s statement says. Apple recently acquired Quattro Wireless and used it to launch its own iAd service. In addition, Apple can leverage its close relationships with application developers and users, its access to a large amount of proprietary user data, and its ownership of iPhone software development tools and control over the iPhone developers’ license agreement.

* Is Google off the regulatory hook now?

Not by a long shot. As the commission said:

Though we have determined not to take action today, the Commission will continue to monitor the mobile marketplace to ensure a competitive environment and to protect the interests of consumers.

Indeed, few experts believe that this decision will have much if any impact on other regulatory concerns about Google’s strength in search ads, its moves into other areas such as display ads, or the privacy implications of its vast data collection.