iPad prepares to step into spotlight

Latest Apple gizmo aims to revolutionize TV, film businesses

No, he wasn’t wearing a black mock turtleneck, but yes, that was Steve Jobs in a tuxedo walking the red carpet at the Oscars. It was Jobs who claimed some kudos for Up, which won two gold statues, and who also marked the night by airing the first TV spot for the iPad, the latest offering from his Apple Inc.

Jobs’ presence attracted an unusual amount of chatter. Speculation ranged from whether he was sending a message that he is back on his feet after his liver transplant, to whether it was true that he had motored down from Silicon Valley because he has forsaken air travel. Overall, the tech mag Infoworld noted adoringly of the outing: “Who was the richest person in attendance? Who has the most influence and commands the biggest audience? Who’s the least bound to Hollywood’s old ways of doing business? The answer to those questions is the same.”

Which is why it’s been interesting to observe how little has been disclosed as yet about the iPad’s potential to change the game in Hollywood. Granted, the gizmo was only unveiled in late January and doesn’t hit stores for two more weeks. Although pitched as an affordable device that can deliver all media, the iPad’s initial directives seem to be to transform print publishing and move the exploding world of software “apps” from the iPhone to a device with physical dimensions more along the lines of what people have come to think of as a laptop. But Jobs’ presence on Oscar night was also a reminder that he harbors ambitions to revolutionize the TV and film businesses just as much—if not more—as he does books and magazines.

Since selling Pixar, he’s been a director and the biggest single shareholder in Disney (though his day-to-day influence is less than you’d imagine). The ascent of Apple has been astonishing. Last week, the company briefly surpassed Wal-Mart as the third-largest company in America by market capitalization—worth some $206 billion. In the ultimate nerd vengeance fantasy, Jobs not only has way more financial muscle than anyone in Hollywood, he’s cooler than and has as much cultural impact as anyone of his generation.

Status-conscious Hollywood views Apple as something of a corporate rapscallion. Much of its success has come from a gigantic transfer of value from the music industry, which didn’t react soon enough to the advent of iPods and iTunes.

If the iPad is embraced, it likely opens a front in the battle over video’s future. While Internet video use is growing rapidly, so is viewing of TV in the home. The big video battle yet to be fought is for the living room, where cable and broadcast still rule and brands like Google and Apple don’t hold much sway; Apple TV, which lets people bypass their cable to download shows and movies and surf, is a cool gizmo but an example of one Jobs creation that has so far fallen short.

People in the U.S. watch more than 30 billion videos a month online—mostly via YouTube, owned by Apple’s newish rival Google. But the average length of those views is only around four minutes, and the advertising market for online video is still comparatively miniscule to what is spent on TV and cable.

Apple has reportedly been trying to convince the networks that sell episodes of their shows via iTunes to drop their prices by half to 99 cents per episode to encourage consumption on (and, ergo, sales of) the iPad. No dummies they, the incumbent TV giants such as Comcast and Time Warner have responded to the rise of Web video, pirate sites and an increasingly mobile audience by pushing an initiative called “TV Everywhere,” under which subscribers to cable or satellite will be able to watch whatever they’re paying for on their TV dial on any device. That, too, can only be good for sales of Jobs’ shiny new toy.

His physical appearances may be rare, but don’t be fooled. His machines are everywhere, and every exec in L.A. will send an assistant to get one on April 2.

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