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Lou Jesse HallBy Lou Washington

We took in the movie “Jobs” this afternoon, the bio of Apple founder and industry visionary Steve Jobs. Despite the crummy reviews and relatively low-level of hype surrounding the movie, Barb and I decided that it beat the uninspired collection of cinematic dross playing on the other 15 screens.

Before I get into a review of the movie, let me just say I never knew Steve Jobs personally nor have I read any of the biographies about him. I will say that Barb and I lived for a couple of years in Cupertino and we both worked in Palo Alto so I had some early experience with Apple as a company.

We lived and worked in the Valley during the mid to late ’80s. I had occasion to know some folks who worked for Apple during those years and I was indeed struck by the passion they felt for the company and its products. They were almost religious in their devotion.

During those years it was not uncommon the have people working beside you that were just putting some bread in the fridge while they looked for a real job. The company I worked for had numerous refugees from Atari who had recently laid off a huge number of folks. It wasn’t unusual to have several HP folks show up, maybe some IBMers or Sun employees hitting your HR office as a group following a round of downsizing or reorganization or de-funding of some project or another.

I don’t ever remember working with someone who used to work for Apple. I don’t know if they didn’t have lay offs or if people just stop working after leaving Apple.

The movie does not paint Steve Jobs as a very likable fellow. I can’t really venture an opinion about Jobs in terms of his personal warmth or fuzziness rating. It does give him passion, creativity, vision and drive. I have to assume he possessed these traits because they would be necessary to accomplish what he did.

For me, the best aspect of this movie was the realistic portrayal of the ongoing tension that exists between Finance, Marketing and Engineering. In that regard, I think this movie did a superb job of showing just exactly how difficult it is to convert a dream into a product concept and then turn that concept into a market changing (I will not use the word disruptive) product and then selling that product as a profitable business.

During my career, I have had the privilege of working in marketing with some very smart folks, I’ve also worked with some superb financial guys and I would have to say the engineers I’ve been around were some of the best in the business. Getting these three elements in sync and making a buck at the same time is supremely difficult.

So, in that regard, if Steve Jobs lost his temper, lashed out at someone or fired people, I’d have to say so what? Those things happen all the time. Business requires us to occasionally be overt, curt and a bit dispassionate.

During the movie, Jobs mentions the concept of making the PC work like an appliance. He talks about removing it from the box, plugging it in and then, “it just works” was how he put it. That kind of simplicity is almost always impossible to attain.  Almost anything you buy requires tweaking, set up or at least a protracted amount of time reading a manual.

About three years ago, I decided to do something radical. My home PC died. We took it down into the basement where we have a family crypt for our deceased PCs. After placing my PC in its niche of eternal rest, I headed out to Best Buy to replace it.

For some reason or another, I decided that this time I was going to go with a Mac. I picked out the model I wanted and waited for the stock person to bring all the boxes and stuff up to the cash register for me.

They rang up my purchase and then handed me a single brief case sized box with a suitcase type handle. I laughed and told them that I had purchased a desk top machine, not a laptop. They assured me that my entire Mac was indeed in the box.

Once I was home, I opened the box and found the monitor and integrated CPU, the keyboard, a mouse, the stand and a power cord. There was also one very slender, very small booklet.

I put the monitor on the stand and plugged the thing in. A message popped up telling me that a wi-fi signal was detected and it asked if I wanted to connect. I tried the mouse and clicked on the “yes” icon. That was it. My Mac was up and running.

No cables, no manuals, no software loads, no CD-ROM, no download this or that, no learning curve. Nothing. It just worked.

So, thank you Mr. Jobs for understanding the beauty of simplicity but also understanding that the best simplicity allows us to exploit astounding complexity.

Go see the movie.

By Lou Washington

Everyone is speculating on what Apple should or will do with the pile of cash it is currently sitting on. New leadership in Cupertino is already showing some willingness to do things a bit differently with their recent stock buy back and dividend declaration.

Last week Business Week ran a piece by Mathew Ingram that took on the suggestion that Apple might be wise to pick up Twitter in an acquisition move. The article makes a number of good points. The most powerful argument for the acquisition is centered around a perceived missing social media component within the overall Apple market strategy.

I think this is a weak argument for buying Twitter. In fact, I would suggest that buying any social media vehicle would be counter productive for any platform manufacturer. At the end of the day, Apple is a platform manufacturer. They make devices and operating systems. They also produce some very good proprietary software products that exploit the platform environments that they build.

Social media outlets such as Twitter and Facebook are different. They are not at all proprietary. They cross-platform lines, cultural lines, social stratification and segments, political orientations and every other human pigeon-hole you can think of. All are welcome in the very large social media tent.

But, once that tent takes on the aura of being proprietary or in any way oriented toward a specific group, it begins to feel a little bit exclusionary.

Consider this, what would happen to Twitter if one of the major political parties bought it. What would happen if a media company purchased Twitter? Would ownership of Twitter by the Republican Party or the Huffington Post increase or diminish the membership of active users?

Apple does not need to buy its way into this arena. Apple users will do that on their behalf. Apple users are not a shy lot, they are passionate about Apple technology and they won’t hesitate to build out a variety of social media based manifestations of that passion.

Apple needs to continue to facilitate the use of social media within the design and concept of the products they bring to market. They do a good enough job of this, but further commitment in this direction will deliver a far more effective social presence then simply buying one of the components.

A good social media strategy must cover multiple social media outlets. Attaining excellence within one, does not guarantee excellence in another. Certainly, one flavor may lend itself more naturally to the goals and tactical processes of any given company. But, this doesn’t mean the company should avoid the other outlets.

The ability to effectively exploit LinkedIn does not mean you should ignore Facebook. Apple surely understands this. Purchasing Twitter would doubtless make it very difficult to develop and maintain close collaboration with communities operating within the other.

There really is very little to be gained by this move. The further you stray from your core competency, the higher the risk of failure.

By Lou Washington

Today is the big day; the day that has been anticipated for months. Today is the day the iPad 3 finally hits the market. If you believe the various news outlets, people are in one of two camps on this. First is the panting, drooling, tail wagging group who is speechless with excitement. Or, second, you are in the wake me when it’s over group.

In reality, most people are somewhere in between.  I certainly am.

The 3rd iteration of the iPad is exciting. A greatly improved camera and an upgraded display will make for an improved product. But, I’m not ready to turn in my iPad 2. I have not actually seen the new improved display or used the upgraded camera, but, I just don’t see those features driving me to abandon the 2 just yet.

The iPad is revolutionary. It has changed lives. But, why is this true. What is there about this device that causes so much hoopla?  As a dedicated user, I’ll try to answer that.

First off, what makes any device a better alternative than not having the device?

1)      It must deliver a decided advantage to the user

2)      It must be convenient

3)      It must allow the user to do more by doing less

4)      It must be consistent

Okay, so the iPad bats 1000 on these four categories. But, the thing that makes it transcend the merely great and cross over into the territory of world-changing is the fact that it does all four of these things on multiple levels. It touches and benefits so many processes within our daily lives.

Here’s what I mean.

Let’s take the going to a presentation meeting experience.   In the pre iPad world you would go to the meeting with a pad and pen. Throughout the meeting you would jot down little notes and quotes that might be useful in the future. Finally, you go back to your office, lose your notes and that’s the end of things.

With the iPad you sit down at the meeting. You open a notes app and as the speaker talks you enter your notes into a named retrievable document. Perhaps the power-point presentation has some interesting graphics; you shoot a picture of the screen to capture the graphics. Perhaps, the presenter has a special verbal presentation that sums up his message. You can click on your recorder and capture the guy making the key points.

When you are done, you have an illustrated, multimedia presentation of the entire meeting. You can send it to others via email, you can store it, you can let it rest and review it later. That’s very powerful for people who attend trade shows or must sit through multiple meeting over the course of a day.

If someone would have built a little box that did all of that in 1995, and called it the Meeting Pro, that person would have appeared on the cover of Fortune Magazine by the end of the year.

So, how much greater is a device that also stores your music, facilitates access to the always open music store, movie store and book store and gives you access to these things anywhere you go?

How much greater is a device that replaces your telephone and email with VOIP and video phone functionality?

What would the worth be of a device that allowed you to carry around not only pictures of your family, but also all the pictures you’ve ever taken in your lifetime?

How about a device that does all of the above and also helps you tune your guitar and then record the latest song you’ve written playing your guitar?

Not musical, no problem, what about photo-shopping your pictures? Image editing software abounds for the iPad.

May be you want to try out a new route to your Aunt Zelda’s house. Fire up your iPad GPS system and you’re there in no time.

When you buy one of these things you have no idea how much it will impact your life. The more you use it, the more ways you find to use it.

So, pardon me if I’m not all over the iPad 3 just yet.  I’m still just blown away by my iPad 2.

By Lou Washington

Technology has always been a major force within the music industry. It is, sometimes, a rocky marriage. Just ask Steinway, the iconic maker of pianos.

In the late 1960’s Steinway introduced teflon as a replacement for felt as a material used for bushings in the construction of their actions. An action, for those not familiar with piano construction is the complex assembly of levers and hinges that responds to the player pushing down on a key by lifting the hammer to strike the strings.

Teflon was a great idea, poorly executed. Field technicians responsible for servicing these pianos were not properly trained in the techniques required to maintain the teflon bushings. The result was a clicking sound that was audible whenever the instrument was played.

Steinway responded quickly and recovered from this adventure. They continue on today as one of the premier piano manufacturers in the world.

This year, at NAMM 2012, technology was the big story. Almost every manufacturer displaying is introducing new and innovative products. For musicians, this is our equivalent of the Paris Air Show or the Detroit Auto Show.

I took a look at the Guitar Center website yesterday. They are listing about 250 new products in a special NAMM promotional sale. Looking over this and a ton of NAMM press releases, most of the new offering fall into two major categories. First is what I’ll call Retro and the second is Technology. Technology is the frontman this year however, because so many of the retro offerings are “powered by” new technology.

What’s New?

On the retro side of the coin both Fender and Gibson are introducing more throwback models to their Guitar lines. These things really fascinate me. The guitars are actually built to specs used in previous models dating from long gone musical eras. Then the instrument is factory aged, complete with nicks, scrapes and factory installed rust spots. They are finally finished in a darker, yellowed shellac or varnish type topcoat.

The effect is amazing. You have a brand new musical instrument that mimics the sounds from say a 1950s Telecaster played in some rural juke joint roadhouse. The illusion is made complete by an appearance one would associate with leaving a guitar unprotected in the back of a pick up truck for several years. When you pick one up, you would swear you were holding a 50 year old Telecaster.

Fender introduced two new tube amps this year under the Pawn Shop Special banner. These are aimed at jammers or small venue performers. They are tube driven and are stylistically tied to the late 1940s or early 1950s. The Greta model even features a functional VU meter. Tube amps are a must have for guitar players looking to emulate the mid 20th century sounds that many of the older blues artists and early rockers produced.

I have a Fender Blues Junior Deluxe and I can attest that the sound produced by these amps is incredible. You simple can not get the same warmth of tone from a solid state, digitally produced signal.

All of the new models interface directly with iPod and iPads or other MP3 players. More on that later.

In the area of amplification another big star is the battery powered amp. These things are really coming on strong. I picked up a Pignose amp the other day and it’s quickly become one of my favorite toys. It runs on a handful of AA batteries and is well under a hundred bucks. It produces a great blues sound with just the right amount of distortion.

Lots of new modeling amps, those with built in effects, were introduced as well. This is pure digital technology. Effects like reverb, vibrato, rectifier, blues drivers, fuzz and wah are all there ready to go with the flick of switch on the amp itself or on a foot pedal.

iPad Heaven

Apple has made a name for itself as the go to PC for graphical applications as well as sound processing. A huge number of music apps are available for the iPad. Garageband, Apples hugely successful, easy to use, sound recording studio is getting lots of company from third party apps these days.

Wave Machine Labs introduced Auria this year and it promises to step things up for those of us who like to record live music. Auria is a fully functional 48 track DAW (Digital Audio Workstation) that runs on iPad. This is a pro-grade recording studio that features a Steinberg VST effects plugin to complete the offering.

You really have to wonder if the local recording studio is an endangered species. Will they go the way of the photo kiosk? Probably not entirely, but I see these tools affecting the price charged for services rendered.

The great thing that technology has done for the music business is provide accessibility. Local musicians can promote themselves also record their concerts or studio sessions. They can produce and sell their own work in CD format or downloadable MP3s. People can actually make a living today as musicians working on a local basis.

Technology has made music egalitarian and the music business a viable, locally focused industry. No longer do musicians have to “go to LA” or New York to gain a market that can support them. The best part is we as consumers win big. Thousands of musicians that would have otherwise been locked out of the market place can now be heard.

There will always be more talent than audience, but technology is significantly closing that gap.

The music business is alive well today because most of the industry has embraced technology. NAMM 2012 has demonstrated that quite well.

By Lou Washington 

I’m not talking about Southeast Asia here, I’m talking about one of the greatest tech trade shows of the year, the Anaheim, CA hosted National Association of Music Merchants show. NAMM 2012 kicked off its winter show on Thursday, January 19.

For any serious amateur musician, this show is somewhere on the bucket list. For me, NAMM combines two of my favorite things, music and technology. Make no mistake, this is a technology show.

Most people probably don’t associate the terms “Music Business” and “technology” in the same thought. Sure, the music publishing establishment nearly ruined the entire industry by refusing, for years, to embrace digital technology. But for musicians, musical instrument manufacturers and teachers, technology has been at center stage for a long time.

NAMM is the annual coming out party for technological innovation in the world of music. And let me tell you, this is one big party!

NAMM by the Numbers

NAMM 2012 is expecting attendance to hit 90,000 visitors during the four-day show. Attendees will be able to visit 1,400 different vendor booths displaying in 8 separate venues throughout the Anaheim Convention Center and area hotels. The local business community expects the show to have an 80 million dollar impact on the local economy.

The show is not just about looking at drums and guitar picks. NAMM is featuring around 140 separate live music performance events. Many of these events feature multiple musical acts. The musicians themselves range from widely known performers to the very obscure. The mix is, well the only word that springs to mind is eclectic.

If you like jazz, you can check out Saxophones Unleashed. How about the Get-A-Life Marching Band? Or, perhaps you would prefer some gospel. How about checking out The Darlings; not sure if we’re talking the old bluegrass group or the newer LA based rock group.

Lot’s of Rock, lot’s of Hip Hop and every other genre you can imagine is kickin’ it out in Anaheim this weekend.

It’s all about Innovation

But, let’s face it, the real reason people go is to look at all of those beautiful, shiny new musical instruments. I can spend hours happily wandering around the local Sam Ash or Guitar Center stores. I can’t imagine being able to take in the entire exhibit floor at NAMM. There’s just too much to see, too much to try out and too many people to talk to.

My second report will have details about the products, what’s new and what’s better this year. Here’s a teaser, guess what is establishing itself as the must have piece of hardware for musicians?

Would you believe the iPad?

More tomorrow!

By Lou Washington

I know there will be a chorus of voices putting down Apple’s motives for moving into the textbook market. But, honestly I can’t see any downside to this.

I don’t care if you’re a student, professor, parent, school administrator or author, this is going to be good for you.

Just consider the following:

  • Cost – Textbooks are far more expensive then market books because they are produced in smaller numbers than say, John Grisham novels. Much of that cost difference can be eliminated in the electronic format.
  • Currency of content – Again, school systems stretch dollars by delaying textbook replacement. Many times this means students are reading and learning material that is simply out of date. This format will allow updating and post sale edits. The book does not have to become obsolete.
  • Portability – You can take your iPad anywhere and view it anytime. Now that knapsack can be used for beer and other useful things. Seriously, one of my most not cherished college memories was the lugging of stuff around campus.
  • Format – The printed page has served us well for several hundred years. The iPad, the eReader and other devices offer fantastic opportunities to expand the scope of what text books do. They can actually present knowledge and teach knowledge versus simply recording it in a static format.
  • Stimulate creativity – One of the great benefits of e-published music and books is the fact that anyone who desires can create and self publish their own work. In the publish or perish world of academia, this has to be a huge plus.
  • Green issues – Trees all over the planet are breathing a big sigh of re-leaf (sorry). Paper is a great product, but, most books are read once and then placed on a shelf until the owner finally decides to get rid of them. Sure there are libraries and used book stores, but eventually way too many end up in the land fill.

I could go on with more bullets, but I think the point is made.

Apple has always been a strong supporter of education and this is another example of how they are really quite at home in the academic world. In the early days of the company, they readily donated or heavily subsidized academic use products for colleges and secondary schools throughout the country.

There will be some that suggest they are trying to corner the textbook market, but I think this is a market with plenty of room for more players. With Windows tablets on the near horizon, the whole tablet market is ready for a some healthy competition.

Any college student from my generation will well remember moving day with the boxes and boxes of books and the hundreds of pounds of LP phonograph records. No wonder we drank so much beer, we were dehydrated from schlepping all that stuff around campus.

Thanks Apple! Wish you’d have been around in my college days.

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