business news in context, analysis with attitude

It will come as no surprise to regular readers of MNB that I am an enormous fan of Apple Computer. (Or Apple Inc., as it is now known.) No, that’s wrong. “Enormous fan” would be an understatement. In our household, there is every manner of desktop computer, laptop computer, wireless “Airport” routers, iPods of almost every shape and size, Apple TV, etc… In other words, we are pretty well committed to the world view that Apple CEO Steve Jobs seems to have…and so far, it’s been a wonderful ride.

Last week, of course, the ride seemed to hit a speed bump when Jobs announced that he was immediately reducing the cost of Apple’s new iPhone by $200, which shocked a lot of people and annoyed many so-called “first adopters” who bought the phone almost as soon as it reached Apple Stores around the country.

Now, I’m not sure how I would have reacted if I’d been one of those early purchasers. I wasn’t, mostly because the iPhone only runs on AT&T’s cell phone system and my Verizon contract doesn’t run out until later this month. (To paraphrase the Rolling Stones, time was on my side…even though when the iPhone came out, I felt more like “you can't always get what you want.”)

But what was really interesting was all the analysis and hand-wringing that took place after Job’s announcement. (You should see it unfiltered, by the way. It’s on the Internet, and worth seeing, if only to watch a real master work the stage.) Everybody and his stockbroker weighed in to say that Jobs finally had made huge mistake and that his reach had exceeded his grasp, that the iPhone clearly wasn't as successful as people expected.

I suspect that the level of upset at the price cut may actually have caught Jobs by surprise, but give the man credit for – within 24 hours – announcing that anybody who’d bought the iPhone at the old price was going to get a $100 credit to spend at the Apple Store. (No dummy, he.)

But what Jobs didn’t say – and probably knew or at least expected – was that within days of the price cut being announced, the one-millionth iPhone would be sold. Three weeks earlier than had been projected when the product was first announced a few months ago. The iPhone is still just a blip in the cell phone universe, but I’d hardly call it a failure – especially because it has in many ways set the creative and technological bar for what cell phones should or can do.

At the end of the day, this is what I admire most about Steve Jobs and Apple. It’s not that he has foolproof business sense; this is a man, after all, who lost control of Apple earlier in his career, and is now enjoying a remarkable second shot, proving that F. Scott Fitzgerald was wrong. No, what I admire most is the vision, the extraordinary design sense, and the ability to create products that have an elegant simplicity that appeals to non-techies like me as well as to people far more creative and technologically savvy than I.

Life is rarely as simple as some would like it to be. In all businesses, there will be hits and misses, and a leader’s job is to make sure that there are more of the former than the latter. The real lesson of Apple’s last two weeks, I think, is that it reinforces the notion that what is really important is to have vision, and to try to be as true to that vision as one can possibly be. The knowledge that one has done so ought to be enough to help a business leader to weather the hard times, because the end game is always clear and unambiguous. That’s important for the people who work at Apple, it ought to be important to the people who own shares in Apple, and it certainly is important to me, as a customer of Apple. And I think a lot of people feel the same way.

I am writing these words on my brand new, week-old, black MacBook laptop. (I hope they don't lower the price on it anytime in the next month or two, but if they do, c’est la vie.) It is the fifth Macintosh laptop I’ve owned during the past decade or so. Each time I get one, I fall in love with it and swear that it will be impossible to replace in my heart. And each time, when the time comes to upgrade, I find myself even more in love with the replacement laptop as it rekindles the passion I feel for a company and its singular products. How many companies – indeed, how many products – incite those kinds of feelings? (Again, I don't think I’m alone in this.)

For that, I thank Steve Jobs. Let the wonderful ride continue.

I had a chance this week to visit Comerica Field this week to watch the Detroit Tigers play the Texas Rangers. It has been a good year for me when it comes to visiting baseball stadiums – I’ve been to three that I’d never visited before. (About a quarter century ago, I was well on my way to visiting every major league baseball stadium in the country. But then I started having kids, travel became a little more complicated, and they started opening new ballparks such as Camden Yards, Jacobs Field, etc… So I’ve fallen behind.)

I liked Comerica Field, but am obliged to observe that as many ballparks as I’ve been to, I have never, ever been to a stadium where there were as many people in my section who were a) drunk, and b) seemingly uninterested in watching the ballgame. It was painfully obvious to many of us in attendance that there was a huge group of fans that was utterly plowed…and yet, the vendors kept the beers and margaritas coming.

Maybe I’m just getting old and cranky, but in cases like this, they’ve got to turn off the spigot. It certainly would have made it easier for the rest of us to watch the game, because the only time this bunch actually sat down and watched the action was in the eighth inning, when stadium rules mandated that booze couldn’t be sold anymore.

Last weekend, I ventured into Greenwich Village, to the tiny Minetta Lane Theater, to see a new musical: “Walmartopia.”

That’s right. The Bentonville Behemoth has now inspired an off-Broadway musical comedy that endeavors to satirize and criticize Wal-Mart’s culture and priorities.

Now, it isn’t a great play by any means. In fact, it is more clever than it is good. The first act takes place “today,” as a young single mother tries to make enough money working at Wal-Mart to support herself and her teenaged daughter. The second act – and this is really where the play goes off the rails – takes place in the year 2037, as the woman and her daughter are transported into a future where Wal-Mart owns, runs and control the entire planet – except for a single rogue place called Vermont, which is ruled by “the dictators Ben and Jerry” who simply don't understand why a big box store will make their state a better place to live. (This is a particularly inspired piece of business, I must admit.)

The writers hit all the usual suspects as they try to dissect the company – the anti-unionization climate, the staff meetings held at Hooters, the difficulties that some women find in getting ahead, and the health care coverage issues. It is like they went to the New York Times online, researched Wal-Mart, and then threw it all into a stew of a musical comedy. It could have been much better, and much more thoughtful. It’s a shame that “Walmartopia” wasn’t.

One other quick note. A certain degree of verisimilitude was reached in the Wal-Mart board room scenes, where all the senior executives looked almost alike. I liked this a lot, mostly because I’ve always thought that Lee Scott, John Menzer and Ed Kolodzieski all look like they’ve been separated at birth.

Sometimes, interesting food experiences come in unlikely places. While I was in the city to see “Walmartopia,” I had dinner at a place called The Shake Shack, which essentially is a big kiosk located in Madison Square Park, near the corner of Madison Avenue and 23rd Street. The Shake Shack is the brainchild of NY restaurateur Danny Meyer, and it works to replicate the feeling of an old roadside burger joint in the middle of midtown Manhattan.

And it works. Extremely well. Essentially, all they sell are a variety of burgers, hot dogs, ice cream, shakes, soft drinks, beer and wine. And when I got there, at about 5:30 pm, there were about 25 people on line in front of me. By the time I placed my order at the window, here were about 75 people on line behind me. People were there both for the food and the shared sense of community, which is a great lesson for any food retailer.

And the food was excellent. I enjoyed what is called a “Double Stack” – a cheeseburger paired on a bun with a “Shroom Burger,” which is a crisp-fried Portobello filled with melted muenster cheese and topped with lettuce, tomato and a special spicy shack sauce. To drink, I had a “Vitamin Creamsicle Shake,” which is a vanilla shake blended with something called “David Kirsch Vitamin-Mineral Orange Super Juice.” Both were fabulous, and unique to The Shake Shack. Which is the other great lesson to all food retailers – wherever and whenever possible, sell stuff that the other guy doesn’t have.

I recently saw another Off-Broadway play that I liked much, much more…if it comes to your town, you should go out of your way to see it. (I think it is going on tour…) The play is called “Tom Crean, Antarctic Explorer,” and it is a one-man show written and performed by a wonderful Irishman named Aidan Dooley. Crean is a real person – an Irish sailor who made three different trips to the Antarctic, twice with Robert Scott and once with Ernest Shackleton. It is a remarkable and amazing story given full life by Dooley. See it if you can. You’ll love it.

Some quick notes….

• I love LL Bean. I really do. The folks up in Maine make almost all my clothes. But even I was caught off guard this week when the 2007 LL Bean Christmas catalog showed up.

• I’ve been traveling a lot the past week or two, and have, from time to time, had to use airport men’s rooms.

And never have I been so self-conscious about my stance, about not tapping my feet, about not making eye-contact. I never knew that airport men’s rooms had a social side to them, but not these days – nobody talks, nobody whistles, nobody does anything but their business, and then it’s out of there.

• Bill Belichick had it coming. Apparently it isn’t enough to be brilliant, talented and have the best football players. The news today is that he’s being hit with a heavy fine, and the team will lose draft picks, for cheating.

Which is good. Though I know there will be some in the MNB community who will defend him, just as they defended corporate espionage in this space a few months ago.

• There’s an amazing ad on the back cover of this week’s issue of The New Yorker for Louis Vuitton luggage. The celebrity endorser, photographed in a car driving past the Berlin Wall? None other than Mikhail Gorbachev.

Which, I’m sorry, is just a little weird.

• The new season of “Curb Your Enthusiasm” picks up right where the series left off – which is to say, it is laugh out loud funny. And “Damages” remains an utterly compelling new series, a puzzle box of a legal thriller starring Glenn Close and Ted Danson. If you haven't seen it, go to iTunes, download all the episodes, and watch them in order. You won’t be sorry.

That’s it for this week. Have a great weekend, and I’ll see you Monday.

KC's View: