A Rhetorical Examination of the Product Keynotes of Steve Jobs

By Alexander E. Hopkins
2012, Vol. 4 No. 09 | pg. 4/9 |

To keep the anticipation high up to the last minute, Jobs mentioned that Apple was “working really hard on it…” However, this “hard-work” also acted as an appreciative way of saying “thank you” to the audience. After all, as he mentioned, the audience gave the feedback necessary when Jobs and Apple asked the public, “What precisely is it that you want?” Finally, when the public indicated that they wanted an iMac “to go,” they were subtly indicating that they wanted something that was familiar to their eyes. As such, the finished product had the same operating system, a large screen and was available in a variety of colors to suit the “flavor” of each individual.

Likewise, Jobs wanted to show his audience that Apple had carved a niche on the laptop market. To communicate this, Jobs compared a new creation with a similar, existing creation. When describing the iBook’s features, he went on: “Secondly, we built in a 300 megahertz G3 processor. This thing is really, really fast, it's a rocket ship. As a matter of fact, this thing is the second fastest portable in the world. It is faster than any Win-Tel portable at any price and it is second only to our venerable PowerBook” (YouTube, 2009). Here, Jobs uses effective imagery to show precisely how fast the brand-new iBook is. For a consumer that was interested in finding an alternative, but did not want to buy an Apple product, Jobs implied that they would be disappointed because this speed and precision to detail was cornered by Apple.

Given today’s unprecedented success of Apple’s iPod, it is surprising fact that, upon it's release, the iPod was not the first MP3 player to hit the market. In fact, MP3 players had existed in the consumer electronics market since the late-1990s. However, these early MP3 players transferred music slowly, were bulky and difficult to use. Jobs understood that music was always going to be a target market for most people. Likewise, Jobs knew that MP3 files were quickly becoming popular because they offered an easier way for consumers to enjoy their music collections. The last observation in particular was not yet a clear-cut market because there was no leading manufacturing brand. Thus, consumers continued to resort to their own methods, often leading to illegal file sharing over the internet. Knowing that there was no clear leader in the MP3 market, Jobs laid-out his reason for jumping into the digital music market. When he introduced the iPod on October 23, 2001, he remarked: “We love music. And it's always good to do something you love. More importantly, music is a part of everyone’s life. Music has been around forever. It will always be around. This is not a speculative market. And because it's a part of everyone’s life, it's a very large target market all around the world. But interestingly enough, in this whole new digital-music revolution, there is no market leader. No one has found a recipe for digital music. We just found the recipe” (Gallo, 77).

Steve Jobs was able to appeal to his audience because, even as a high-profile CEO, he experienced the frustrations of the typical electronics consumer. As such, his goal in creating the iPod was to place the “heart” of consumer electronics—that is, the user interface—into the iPod. He wanted to exploit his competitors’ insistence on creating a technically-superior product. When he announced “We just found the recipe,” he whetted the audiences’ appetite for a product that met Jobs’ criteria: easy-to-use, stylish and affordable.

Before Jobs could enter the market, he had to “go back to the drawing board.” That is, he had to lay-out the mindset of the typical electronics engineer, observe what went wrong from a consumer’s perspective and fix these mistakes before unleashing his creation into the world. This was likely his most valuable trait—thinking in terms of a computer engineer, yet having the eye of a typical consumer. Steve Jobs did not have to divulge any quantitative sales data to justify his point. Rather, he used qualitative common-sense that did not need to be painstakingly researched. He knew that music was, is and always will be around.

Apple’s long-used phrase was “Think Different,” a motto that Jobs himself took to heart. He felt that Apple’s long-standing commitment to consumers—actually listening to their thoughts about improvements to existing products—was what separated Apple from other MP3 player manufacturers. While Apple has rarely used focus groups, this does not mean that they discount the opinions of customers entirely. Prior researchers were searching for a way to make music more accessible to the general public. Likewise, he was fully-aware of the pains of consumers—having to carry a fragile portable CD player, a cumbersome wallet full of CDs and switching-out CDs every so often just to listen to a new artist. If a consumer spent upwards of $400 for an MP3 player, assuming there were no compatibility problems, a user would be waiting for hours just to transfer their music collection.

While the iPod was quickly gaining momentum from October 2001-April 2003, it would take until October 2004 for the device to dominate the entire MP3 player market. On April 28, 2003, Jobs unveiled the third-generation iPod to the world. He felt that this iPod would be different than it's predecessors, as it had many features that were heavily-requested by consumers. He explained: “So, the new iPod. Let’s take a look at the top of it [Points to top-view image of the new iPod] We’ve got our headphone jack and the hold switch, but no fire-wire connector. We’ve put it on the bottom [Points to a picture revealing the fire-wire port on the bottom]. There’s a cable that plugs right into it. But the iPod also drops into a dock. This has been one of the most-requested features we’ve had. And so you can just drop your iPod in your dock and it automatically connects to your computer. So you can sync, charge and go even faster and more conveniently. It's really, really nice. Now, just like cell phones and other devices, that connector that plugs into your iPod is the same connector that plugs into your dock. But look at what we’ve added on the dock: line-out. Another thing that has been heavily-requested. People want to hook up their iPods to their stereo conveniently. There’s a line-out on the dock, you can even buy an accessory dock if you want, a second dock and put it right by your stereo. And you just plug-in your iPod and it charges and hooks up right to your stereo. We think this is gonna be a strong feature. Now, iPods have always supported FireWire, but with these new iPods, we’re adding USB 2 for our Windows customers” (YouTube, 2003).

Here, Jobs “impersonates” the answers to the “questions” of the average consumer. The oft-requested features of the iPod was likely a consumer’s “dream come true.” The third-generation iPod was arguably Apple’s “game-changer” in the emerging MP3 player market. Gradually, the MP3 player market was beginning to take shape, so Apple’s goal here was to “ride the wave” of popularity towards gaining consumers in this market. One way to do this was to make the iPod compatible with both Apple and Windows-based operating systems. Apple was confident it's own operating system could not topple the widespread-adoption of the Windows-based operating system. In other words, Apple could still prove to be a viable threat to Microsoft because most MP3 players were only compatible with Microsoft’s own operating. That said, Apple followed the old mantra “if you can’t beat them, join them.”

The January 2010 iPad unveiling is perhaps the single most important keynote for generalizing Jobs’ sales figures keynotes. Not only is it one of his last keynote addresses and hence rhetorically-defining from years of practice, but the sales data that he provides is one of the most current, which in turn allows comparisons with sales figures from earlier keynote addresses. Jobs took advantage of analyzing sales figures from his competitors, especially since 2010 saw a dramatic increase in the use of mobile devices compared to previous years. After announcing Apple’s profits, Jobs asked openly: “Now, where does Apple get this revenue? It gets it from three product lines: iPods, iPhones and, of course, Macs. Now, what’s really interesting about this is that iPods are [now considered to be] mobile devices. iPhones are all mobile devices. And most of the Macs that we ship now are laptops, they are mobile devices too. Apple is a mobile devices company. That’s what we do! And we asked ourselves, ‘With 15.6 billion dollars in revenue last quarter, how does Apple ‘stack-up’ with all the other companies that sell mobile devices?’ And it turns out, by revenue, Apple is the largest mobile devices company in the world now. It's amazing” (YouTube, 2010).

Jobs eschewed rattling-off sales figures by placing them into a larger context through comparison with that of Apple’s competitors. It is easy to see that, with the data of his closest competitors at hand, that Jobs is skilled at making inferences in order to completely change the context of his keynotes. Jobs subsequently established credence that consumers are increasingly using Apple’s mobile devices. Like any good CEO, Jobs always looked towards expanding Apple’s market reach to establish a much wider consumer base. Indeed, when examining documents of Apple’s quarterly sales calls leading up to January 2010, it is easy to see that Jobs’ data is not over-exaggerated because laptop sales were much larger than desktop sales (Apple Computer, 2009).

With the establishment of a clear trend of consumers’ preferences, he next moved on to inferring about their needs. He went on: “And so all of us [in the general public] use laptops and smart-phones now. Everybody uses a laptop and/or a smart-phone. And the question has arisen lately: is there room for a third category of device in the middle? Something [that is] between a laptop and a smartphone. And, of course, we [at Apple] pondered this question for years as well. The bar’s pretty high. In order to create a new category of devices, those devices are gonna have to be far better at doing some key tasks. They’re gonna have to be far better at doing some important things. Better than a laptop, better than the smartphone” (YouTube, 2010).

Jobs became world famous for “selling the benefit.” While many analysts have made this observation after Jobs revealed—perhaps to justify an Apple product’s higher price compared to competing products— it can be argued that Jobs had to pique the audiences’ curiosity prior to revealing a product. This would make sense because, if Jobs reveals a product without establishing a need, he would have a lot of explaining to do with the audience. That is, since he establishes a need prior to a product’s unveiling, he gives the audience a “breather” when he reveals the product itself. The audience subsequently has time to admire the product in all of it's glory while Jobs lists all of the product’s key features. Imagine if Jobs had revealed the product first—his long-winding rhetoric would cause the audience to disengage with what he is saying. Instead, by putting the audience in a state of wonderment, Jobs can give the product it's “drum-roll” moment prior to it's unveiling.

Closely related to making inferences about his consumers, Jobs’ keynotes explicitly communicated Jobs’ view that his products are superior to those of competitors. In doing so, he was hoping that consumers would be able to infer that Apple’s products were superior when Jobs told them and showed them so in his keynotes. In Jobs’ early keynotes, he simply implies that a product is the best on the market. This is unsurprising, as Jobs had to spend the first few years of his second tenure as Apple’s CEO cleaning up the company. Until he built-up Apple’s social and economic capital, an assertion of a product being the best would sound egotistical. However, as history has shown, Apple’s sales figures soared as the years passed during Jobs’ second tenure. When a product truly dominated the market only then could the sales figures support Jobs’ assertion of a product’s superiority.

A fine example of the former was during the October 23, 2001 keynote that introduced the first-generation iPod to the world: “So we’ve got this five gigabyte [hard] drive that holds a thousand songs. How do we get the thousand songs on iPod? We don't wanna wait. So we built-in FireWire. Now, Apple as you know invented FireWire, we ship FireWire on every computer we make. It's built into iPod. [It's the] first and only music player with FireWire. Why? Because it's fast! You can download an entire CD in[to] the iPod in under ten seconds. An entire CD. So, let’s take a look at how it compares with USB. Five to ten seconds for FireWire to load a CD. On USB, you’re talking five minutes. Let’s talk about a thousand songs now. An iPod with FireWire, it is under ten minutes. On a USB player, it is five hours. Can you imagine that? You get your USB player, you wanna load a thousand songs and you get to watch it for five hours as it loads [the songs on to the USB player]. Under ten minutes on the iPod. It's thirty times faster than any other MP3 player. So, huge win [for the iPod]” (YouTube, 2001).

Here, Jobs can be thought of as a “magician” because he transports the minds of the audience away from their frustrating reality with the MP3 player market. For one, instead of a consumer having to wait for hours just to sync their songs onto an MP3 player, the iPod “magically” solves this problem by using “FireWire.” Jobs’ italicized exclamations, such as “it’s built-into,” “it’s fast,” “entire,” “hours,” “than any other,” reveal several characteristics that make the iPod unique compared to every other MP3 player on the market at that time. However, the last one, “than any other,” was the most direct way of saying that the iPod was better than any other MP3 player. The rest, on the other hand, were more subtle and indirect at addressing the iPod’s superiority.

On April 28, 2003, Apple refreshed it's iPod line by introducing the third-iteration of the iPod. Unlike previous models, the front buttons and “click-wheel” were entirely stationary touch pads. Up to that point, one of the most notable features present on the iPod that no other competitor could match was auto-sync. As Jobs went on: “What about the software? Well, of course, we have auto-sync. It's the one and only. And because we have a ton of patents pending, we think that it will stay the one and only. Uh, and this is great, you plug your iPod into your computer and your entire music library is automatically synchronized with your iPod. No one else does that” (YouTube, 2003).

Unlike the initial 2001 unveiling of the first-generation iPod, the third-generation’s debut was a markedly different and efficient way for Jobs to explain to his audience that the iPod was the best MP3 player on the market. Up to that time, the iPod had a distinct set of features that no single competitor could match. He provided evidence by explaining “And because we have a ton of patents pending, we think that it will stay the one and only.” However, as previously mentioned, the real “game-changer” was that this was the first iPod that was compatible with the Windows operating system.

When the iPod became compatible with the two mainstream computer operating systems, sales surged, leading the device to dominate the market just eighteen months later. In the meantime, this keynote packed a “one-two punch” against competitors because they faced improved hardware and software on the iPod. This is one of the only product keynotes in which the software of the product was more important than the hardware itself. Arguably, the latter was considered more intimidating because it essentially made the iPod “beg” for widespread adoption. In many ways, while the audience couldn’t wait to get their hands on the new iPod, the keynote served as somewhat of a subtle warning to competitors. Jobs was, in essence, telling competitors that had better innovate—and quickly at that.

By October 2005 the Apple iPod was in a different market realm. Shortly after it dominated the MP3 player market the previous year, Apple had to increase demand. While the capacities increased, the price lowered slightly and several other models became available. These two factors gave Jobs more confidence to directly announce the iPod’s superiority. When he revealed new 30 gigabyte and 80 gigabyte video-capable models, he asserted: “So, the first thing I like to do is give you an update about our music business. It [the new iPod] is the best music player we’ve ever made. It's got a gorgeous large screen that’s the best thing in the world for album art. The sonic quality is fantastic on it. You can play audiobooks on it. You can also play podcasts on it. Everything you do with music and spoken word. It's fantastic” (YouTube, 2005).

Beginning in 2005, Jobs almost always announced the iPod’s agenda first. After all, the iPod was the company’s best-selling product, and for very good reason. Not only was the iPod appealing to Macintosh users, but also to Microsoft Windows users as well. Once again, Jobs used exclamations, this time to accomplish two goals. First, he backed-up his assertion that the iPod “is the best music player we’ve ever made.” He used “gorgeous,” “the best,” and repeated “fantastic” once more. Second, his exclamations reflected what inner voice of awe in the audience.

As time went on, when the iPod’s sales gradually increased, Jobs’ confidence grew, allowing him to make grandiose assertions of the iPod.When the iPod Nano was introduced on September 7, 2005, it was a surprisingly risky move. By then, the iPod mini, was already flying off the shelves. However, Jobs lived by Apple’s motto of “think different,” which meant to him to go above his competitors in technological advances. In a September 12, 2006 keynote, he introduced a refreshed iPod line by beginning: “So, the first thing I like to do is give you an update about our music business. As you know, we’ve got the iPod, best music player in the world. We’ve got the iPod Nanos, brand new models, colors are back. We’ve got the amazing new iPod Shuffle. The iPod, in addition to being the world’s best MP3 player, has become the world’s most popular video player, and by a large margin. The iPod Nano is the world’s most popular MP3 player, by a wide margin. And the new shuffle is the world’s most wearable MP3 player” (Nguyen, 2007).

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