A Rhetorical Examination of the Product Keynotes of Steve Jobs

By Alexander E. Hopkins
2012, Vol. 4 No. 09 | pg. 5/9 |

However, rather than declaring that the iPod was the “best music player we’ve ever made,” Jobs went a step further and announced that it is the “best player in the world.” Of course, he had to back up his assertions, which he did with relative ease. When he began by saying, “the first thing I like to do…,” this indicated that Jobs had been thinking for enough time to push the iPod’s agenda to the forefront of that keynote, as well as every subsequent keynote. In contrast, if Jobs had said, “the first thing I would like to do…,” the context would have completely changed. No longer would the iPod’s agenda appear calculated, but rather, a more spontaneous agenda transition.

When exterior colors were introduced on the second-generation iPod Nano from 2006, they were “re-incarnated” from the iPod mini’s color lineup. In some ways, this could be considered an apology to the audience for axing the mini during the height of it's popularity. When Jobs summed-up the iPod line’s formidable lineup—the Nano’s colors, the classic’s video playback and the shuffle’s small size—it was a delivery of the promise to listen to his customers. To a competitor, this was their worst nightmare because it revealed what they were “stacked-up” against.

When the new iPod Nanos were rhetorically-signposted first, it became evident that the iPod subject of his keynotes would become a tradition that would be addressed first. Like 2005, the first subject that Jobs addressed was the iPod lineup because it was Apple’s most-popular product. Indeed, when examining transcripts and videos of later addresses, the iPod’s agenda is always the “it” product that is addressed first. In 2010, when the iPod-craze was replaced with a new iPad-craze, this rhetorical time-progression of claiming superiority began anew once more.

Make no mistake, Jobs’ main goal during a keynote was not to show the competitor in a bad light. Rather, it was to place the spotlight on a product that would make the lives of consumers better in some way (Gallo, 76). However, if Jobs wanted to prove that his product was superior to any competing product, he had to explain why. Clearly, Apple would not be entering the consumer electronics market unless there were product categories that consumers were familiar with. In this vain, when Jobs was comparing his product to a competing product, the audience already had a sense of the product’s functionality. When the basic knowledge was present, only then would the audience understand that Jobs’ “take” on a product was superior.

When dismissing an Apple employee’s “half-baked” prototype Jobs sneered, “You’ve baked a really lovely cake, but then you’ve used dog shit for frosting” (Gallo, 193). In essence, Jobs wanted to give-credit to a competitor for creating a product with a purpose. However, he wanted to show where they went wrong—where they “used dog shit for frosting.” Jobs was strategic about where he fought his battles. For instance, he did not focus on creating the Mac’s operating system the industry’s “gold-standard” because that was where Microsoft excelled (Linzmayer, 289). However, for the markets that were not dominated by a competitor, his main strategy was to focus simplicity over technical prowess (Gallo, 137).

When the iBook was unveiled at the July 1999 MacWorld Expo, the laptop market had many competitors, most notably PCs running the Microsoft Windows operating system. In general, most of Apple’s products have usually been noticeably more expensive than competitors. For laptops, a gadget much pricier than an MP3 player, the price differences among different laptops will be much more pronounced. To justify this price difference, Jobs claims that his product was more technologically-advanced: “So what are we gonna price this [iBook laptop] at and when’s it gonna be available? We thought a lot about pricing. With this complement of features, again, iBook is faster than Win-Tel notebooks that you could pay $3,000, $3,500 for. It's got a beautiful screen on it. It's got [internet] communications like Ethernet built-in that you’d never find in a consumer notebook. IBM’s cheapest consumer notebook is $1799. But if you really look at something comparable in features, it's over two thousand dollars. And we knew we probably could have sold most every one we made for over two thousand dollars. But we decided to price this within-reach of our education customers and our consumer customers. We’re gonna price it at $1,599 [audience breaks into applause and cheers]. And it’ll be available this September—in volume. So, $1,599 this September in the stores. And you can [pre-] order them today right on the Apple store [website] or through your favorite dealer. We’re accepting orders as of today. On the store and in the channel. So this is iBook and it's really, really great” (YouTube, 1999).

What was particularly effective about this comparison by Jobs was that these were the two most-common computers that the audience was familiar with because they had (and still do have) the highest market share among manufacturers. Jobs wanted to appeal to consumers that likely have not done their research. Since Jobs’ products are much more expensive than competitors, he had to “sell” the iBook’s stylish good looks and powerful processor. There were certainly more laptop manufacturers than just IBM that offered laptops below the $1,000 price-range. It is easy for Jobs to compare the iBook to a “Win-Tel” IBM laptop, as there are only two variables (the computers) that he is comparing, allowing for a more “in-depth” rhetorical study for Jobs to conduct. However, as most consumers know, the computer industry does not consist entirely of computers made by Apple and “Win-Tel”-type PCs.

On January 24, 1984, a fresh-faced, grinning 28-year old named Steve Jobs proudly unveiled the original Apple Macintosh to the world. Jobs took advantage of the year, comparing the IBM as Mac’s antagonist akin to the repressive social forces of author George Orwell’s classic Nineteen-Eighty Four. Jobs’ introduction helped to “set the stage” and the overall thematic mood of the event: “It is now 1984. It appears IBM wants it all. Apple is perceived to be the only hope to offer IBM a run for it's money. Dealers initially welcoming IBM with open arms now fear an IBM dominated and controlled future. They are increasingly turning back to Apple as the only force that can ensure their future freedom. IBM wants it all, and is aiming it's guns on it's last obstacle to industry control: Apple. Will ‘Big Blue’ dominate the entire computer industry? The entire information age? Was George Orwell right?” (YouTube, 1984).

Although these observations about IBM were jokingly-narrated, the mood effectively allowed the audience to be “transported” to a computerized “battle-ground.” The audience could thus “act-out” their fantasies, being a force of good in a battle of good (Apple) and evil (IBM). Compared to later keynotes, Jobs was not nearly as candid about coaxing the audience to perceive one of Apple’s competitors as a force that could, in this case, turn American society into a dystopia.

When Jobs introduced the original 1st-generation iPod in 2001, the device was aimed-squarely at the portable music player market. Prior to the expansion of the MP3 Player market, consumers mostly listened to music using a portable CD player. For the most part, CD Players had excellent sound quality and reasonably-long battery life. As technology advanced, skip-protection was refined, allowing consumers who lived active lifestyles to take along their CD players without their music skipping a beat. However, since most MP3 players were cumbersome, pricey and hard-to use, the CD player remained the preferred choice among consumers.

Jobs introduced the iPod at an opportune time because, not only was a leading MP3 player manufacturer, but there was no clear-cut device that every consumer had adopted. One of the first parts of his keynote was comparing the iPod to a CD player, an MP3 CD player a flash-hard drive player and a hard-drive-based “jukebox” player. He reasoned aloud with his audience: “A CD player costs about $75 and holds about ten to fifteen songs on a CD. That’s about $5 a song. You can buy a flash player for $150. It holds about ten to fifteen songs, or about $10 a song. You can buy an MP3 CD player that costs $150, and you can burn up to 150 songs, so you get down to a dollar a song. Or you can buy a hard-drive Jukebox player for $300. It holds about one thousand songs and costs thirty cents a song. We studied all these, and that’s where we want to be [points to “hard drive” category on slide]. We are introducing a product today that takes us exactly there, and that product is called iPod” (YouTube, 2001).

Prior to unveiling the iPod, Jobs established a need for why the iPod should exist. Compared to other tech companies, Apple did not introduce a competitor into an existing market for the sole purpose of making it technologically-superior. Instead, like Apple’s simple user interfaces, he compared the devices in layman’s terms. Jobs knew that, even if journalists and tech consumers were excited about the iPod, he knew that not everyone would understand how the iPod was superior in a technological sense. In light of this, he used a comparison that “hit home” for everyone: the price they pay for each song. Comparing the price-per-song was effective because it allowed any consumer to see that a transition to MP3 players was not only easy, but cost-effective as well.

In November 2006, Microsoft entered the MP3 player market with a device they called the “Zune.” However, the Zune was facing a difficult consumer market, as the iPod had dominated the market for two years at that point. While Microsoft touted the Zune’s “superiority” towards the iPod—a larger screen, an FM radio that identified songs playing, wireless-music sharing—the public remained unconvinced. Most of this dominance was grounded in customer loyalty, since Apple listened to it's own consumers for feedback. Not only was the iPod easy-to-use, but the iTunes music software quickly and effectively organized a user’s music collection. Not only was the iPod’s ease-of-use preventing consumers from abandoning the Apple brand, but the proprietary-nature of purchased-iTunes music played a significant role as well. Prior to May 2007, the iTunes music software employed Digital Rights Management (DRM) for all of it's music purchases online. If consumers abandoned their iPods, their iTunes music store purchases were un-playable on any other MP3 player.

Taking a cue from the iPod-iTunes “ecosystem,” Microsoft created it's own proprietary music management/online store for it's Zune. However, like the iPod, it employed DRM. Thereby, there was virtually no incentive for users who heavily-invested in the iPod- iTunes ecosystem to switch to the Zune for their music needs. Jobs rhetorically-capitalized on this absent incentive for switching by citing vague sales data. Prior to unveiling the new iPhone on January 9, 2007, Jobs announced: “And we had a new competitor this past holiday season, which was, of course, Microsoft’s Zune. So how’d they do? Well, we don’t have data for December yet, because it’s not out till next week or the week after, I forget. But we have data for November, which was their launch month, should have been real big. And they garnered 2 percent market share. Two percent market share. iPod had 62 percent market share, and the rest had 36. Again, we don’t have data for December. We know we went up quite a bit in December in terms of market share. And we’ll find out how they did. But 2 percent in their launch month? So, no matter how you try to spin this, what can you say?” (Nguyen, 2007).

One of Jobs’ greatest rhetorical assets was that he was able to mirror the feelings of the general public. Since the Zune’s market share was miniscule in the weeks after it's launch, it was understandable that consumers would condemn the Zune as a publicly-embarrassing failure. Not only did he “excuse” himself from the vague data by remarking, “I forgot,” but he also mentioned that Microsoft had not already released the data. The latter in particular portrayed Microsoft itself as an antagonist because the company was not prompt and transport with it's sales data. Even though the sales data that Jobs cited was vague, he employed a mocking vocal tone to place the blame squarely on Microsoft. While it was a risky-move for Jobs to condemn a competing project—especially a brand-new one—Jobs was known for these rhetorically-risky moves. Ultimately, Jobs put his “money where his mouth was,” which proved to be a gamble that paid-off. In a bittersweet coincidence, the Zune hardware was discontinued the precise day of Jobs’ death.

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