A Rhetorical Examination of the Product Keynotes of Steve Jobs

By Alexander E. Hopkins
2012, Vol. 4 No. 09 | pg. 7/9 |

When Steve Jobs announced the first-generation iPad on January 27, 2010, he knew that the competition would go beyond simply manufacturers. Specifically, a type of product called a “netbook” had already proliferated the consumer electronics market. Prior to unveiling the iPad, Jobs ran through his keynote slides, explaining the need for an intermediary device that combined the best features of the iPhone, along with the portability of an Apple MacBook laptop. While some in the audience were likely thinking that Apple could be introducing a low-cost ultra-portable netbook, Jobs addressed these rumors when he remarked: “Now, some people have thought that’s a netbook. The problem is netbooks aren’t better at anything [audience laughter]. They…they’re slow, they have low-quality displays and they run clunky-old PC software. So they’re not better than a laptop at anything. They’re just cheaper, cheap laptops. And we don't think they’re a third-category device” (YouTube, 2010).

Here, the antagonist was the netbook category. Unlike a specific product designed by a company, such as the Android mobile platform or the Microsoft Zune, the netbook posed a bigger threat to Jobs’ company because many different PC companies had netbooks in their product lineups. Jobs’ tactic here was to speak his opinion. However, Jobs was clever in that he disguised his opinion as a forceful assertion, giving the impression that his thoughts were the “dogma” of the technological world.

These generalized assertions included that “they’re not better than a laptop at anything” and that “we [at Apple] don't think they’re a third-category device.” To Jobs, netbooks were the antithesis of Apple because they “have low-quality displays and they run clunky-old PC software.” It was here that, during Apple’s “second renaissance,” Apple’s popularity continued to skyrocket because positive technology reviews bolstered Apple’s product line. As a result, consumers were willing to pay more than a comparable Windows PC—often referred to the “Apple Tax”—to have a high-quality, stylish product. Clearly, the netbook was it's own separate entity because it did not live-up to Jobs’ high standards for Apple products.

After introducing an antagonist by revealing it's short-comings, Jobs almost always introduces the solution—in this case, the product—first. Next, he works his way backwards to answer the main question on the minds of the audience: “Why should I care?” He accomplished two goals by working in this format. First, Apple’s “solution” could be described and shown-off to an open-minded audience. Second, at the same time, Jobs could also compare Apple’s product to the antagonist. The latter goal is starkly different from the previous section, which detailed the introduction of one or more antagonists. When an antagonist is introduced, only the “problem” is evident to the audience. When Apple’s product—the solution—was introduced and explained in detail, Jobs frames the both the “problem” and “solution” together, while rhetorically “attacking” the “problem” head-on.

When the iPod was introduced in October 2001, much of the audience was surprised that Apple had just entered the digital music player market. For much of Apple’s quarter-century existence up to that point, the company was almost-exclusively devoted to just computers, not peripheral devices. Apple is, first and foremost, a manufacturer of computers. As such, Apple garners most of it's profits from computers. Costly peripheral failures in the past, such as the “Newton” portable data assistant, were a chapter that Apple wanted to leave out of it's history. When the iPod was unveiled, Jobs wanted to ensure that another “Newtonesque” fiasco did not happen again. One way to ensure that the iPod would find a favorable consumer base was to wait several years to observe the MP3 player market, taking note of features that could be improved-upon. The “Newton,” in some ways, was revolutionary because it was considered the first mainstream PDA on the market to recognize handwriting. However, Apple (in the absence of Jobs) did not observe the market beforehand to see if there was truly a market for a revolutionary feature set.

The iPod, however, was much more-polished than the Newton. Using existing MP3 players as a guide, Jobs pointed to his keynote slide and observed aloud: “Now, let’s take a look at some [of the iPod’s] competitors, some of their flash [based hard-drive] products here. Here’s iRiver. Look at this [points to Keynote showing top view of both], sixty eight percent smaller, it's one-third the size of a competing player that doesn't [have] anywhere near the amount of songs. Here’s another one by a company called Creative. I think it's called their Zen player. Uh, again, [the iPod is] sixty-nine percent smaller, one-third the size” (YouTube, 2005).

In Jobs’ slides, he took arguably the most unattractive-looking MP3 players on the market at the time to make a big statement. Jobs showed that the MP3 player market was, at the very least, lacking in stylishly good looks. At first glance, the slide may appear to simply be portraying an antagonist, as it goes by two competing models before coming back to the picture of the iPod. However, in subsequent slides, Jobs has the image of the iPod placed next-to each of the competing players. He then compares the iPod to each model, noting especially the competing players’ larger size dimensions.

On April 28, 2003, Jobs introduced the third-iteration of the iPod to an excited audience. This iPod, unlike the first and second-generations, had better battery life, a thinner design, more model capacities and a lower price. While Jobs could tell the audience of all these amazing new features, he also had to dramatically show them the difference. He proudly announced: “Well, we’re gonna try today, because today we’re introducing some new iPods. It's our third generation, no one’s even caught up with our first generation yet and we’re introducing our third. It is dramatically lighter at .62 inches and dramatically lighter at only 5.6 ounces. Now, how thin and light is that? That is lighter than 2 CDs in their jewel cases. For 7500 songs versus 20 songs on the CDs. And it is thinner than those exact same two CDs. Yeah, it's ‘wow.’ Now, in addition, the no-moving parts scroll-wheel was so successful that we’ve made all the controls touch, no moving parts. And we have a much better screen now, much higher contrast ratio on the iPod. In addition to that, it has an incredibly nice back-light which lights up the buttons as well” (YouTube, 2003).

Jobs uses several comparisons in this part of his keynote. First, he compares the size and weight of the iPod to compact discs in their jewel cases. Given that MP3 players were initially-designed to carry large-amounts of music, he wanted to show that CDs themselves were becoming obsolete. Not only were CDs in their jewel cases thicker with a smaller song capacity, but a CD could not hold the precise songs that a consumer wanted. To Jobs, there were no sacrifices associated with switching from a CD player to an MP3 player. This was true, especially if the latter happened to be an iPod.

Second, Jobs compared the third-generation iPod to the first and second-generation iPods from 2001 and 2002, respectively. It may seem ironic at first that the antagonists to the third-generation iPod were it's predecessors. However, since the third-generation iPod was a significant leap-forward from the prior two generations, Jobs had to capitalize on these new features by showing the audience—by direct visual comparison on his keynote slides—that they should buy the newest, most stylish yet.

In October 2005, just one month after the ground-breaking iPod Nano was released, Jobs surprised the audience with the fifth-generation iPod. Unlike previous models, the fifth-generation was capable of playing several formats of video on it's 2.5 inch screen. While this single feature was the newest iPod’s selling point, he had to “drive this point home” by using concrete, observable comparisons between the fifth-generation iPod and the fourth generation iPod. He asked his audience: “Now, how do these compare physically to their predecessor, the 20 gig iPod that we’re replacing today? Well, let me show you, this will blow your mind. The 20 gig iPod was the thinnest white iPod we’ve had. Well, the 30 gig with 50 percent more storage is 31 percent thinner than the 20 gig that it's replacing. The 60 gig, the dual-platter, is actually thinner than the 20 gig as well. It's 12 percent thinner. So these new iPods are really thin. They’re pretty amazing” (YouTube, 2005).

Jobs began here with a question to not only signpost his topic, but also to engage the critical-thinking skills of his audience. To help his audience get “prepared” for an extreme visual difference, he excitedly remarks “this will blow your mind.” He echoed the sentiment “the thinnest iPod we’ve had” that he made on July 19, 2004, when the fourth-generation iPod was released. However, a key difference here is that now he uses “was” to indicate that fifteen months ago (up to that point) was the past and, only now, was the audience truly gaining a glimpse of the future of MP3 player technology. Even during his last keynote in June 2011, Jobs always made the audience into believing that they were glimpsing into the future, despite the tech industry’s brisk advancement pace. In other words, he wanted them to forget that today’s hottest gadget would be superseded by tomorrow’s technology.

In addition to citing precise dimensions for the new iPod, Jobs also introduced a new, higher-capacity model to complement the new, standard 30 gigabyte model. To show just how thin the new iPod was, he used the most extreme sizing examples to show that the year-old fourth-generation was already obsolete. In this case, he showed that, even the 60 gigabyte fifth-generation iPod—with three-times the capacity as the fourth—could still be thinner.

On September 7, 2005, Steve Jobs stunned the tech world when he introduced the “impossibly thin” iPod Nano to succeed the twenty-month-old iPod mini. Despite the initial surprise, this announcement worked in Jobs’ favor because the Nano, up to that time, was truly a glimpse into the future because it was the thinnest MP3 player yet. In his visual presentation, Jobs used keynote slides to compare the Nano’s size to a #2 pencil. While the comparison dramatically-stressed the Nano’s size, pencils and MP3 players are hardly alike. Jobs subsequently uses keynote slides to depict and compare visual dimensions of the new iPod Nano to the first-generation iPod classic from 2001: “Now let’s go ahead and compare it to the original iPod. This is the original iPod that also held a thousand songs in your pocket. Look at that. The iPod Nano is eighty percent smaller in volume than the original iPod. Eighty percent smaller means it's twenty percent the size, one-fifth the size of the original iPod that we shipped less than four years ago” (YouTube, 2005).

In light of the 2005 iPod nano-2001 iPod classic comparison, it quickly becomes clear that the Nano-pencil size comparison is less-effective. Consumers would not want to abandon their current MP3 players and buy the new iPod Nano because they could enjoy both MP3 players and pencils. The 2005 nano-2001 classic comparison was more effective because, in addition to comparing it to an object that the audience were familiar with (the first-generation iPod classic), it also showed that the hard-drive based players released up to that point were going to become obsolete. In the pencil size comparison, there was less of a dramatic effect because pencils were not going to be obsolete anytime soon. In order to show that the Nano was a glimpse into the future, Jobs emphasized the size difference when he remarks that “The iPod Nano is eighty percent smaller in volume than the original iPod.” In Jobs’ mind, there were no disadvantages for consumers to stop using their old 2001 iPod classic and upgrade to the new 2005 iPod Nano.

However, the real heart of the matter was the question of the iPod mini. Like the iPod classic, the iPod mini was a hard-drive based player. Similarly, like the iPod Nano, it was small and held about one-thousand songs. The iPod mini, as opposed to the iPod classic, was marketed for people who had a small music collection and wanted a compact device. He subsequently compared the size dimensions of the iPod mini and the iPod Nano: “Okay, let’s compare it [the iPod Nano] to the iPod Mini. The iPod Mini—an incredibly successful product. The iPod Nano is half the thickness. It's sixty-two percent smaller by volume. That means it's almost one-third the size of the iPod mini” (YouTube, 2005).

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