If there's one thing Steve Jobs knew, it was that we don't want reality, we want magic


INNOVATE THIS:There’s still much talk about Steve Jobs’ legacy, partly driven by the timely publication of Walter Isaacson’s biography for the former Apple boss. Some people say his magic lay in the products – from the original Apple Mac, the first mouse and the deceptively simple looking software through to the iPod, iPhone and iPad.

Others reference his mastery of content, the rise of iTunes and then Pixar and the App market. The more business-minded point to Jobs’ ability to control the markets: a weaker leader would have been forced to get more gadgets out there, chasing growth at the reputational risk of launching an inferior product. Jobs famously said it was the products he didn’t make that made Apple so good.

This month I saw the legacy of Steve Jobs with my own eyes, and it was none of those things. The event was Nokia World, a trade show cum meet-and-greet for the Finnish mobile phone behemoth.

For those of you not up to speed on the progress of Nokia over the last few years, you haven’t missed much (progress I mean). Since the launch of the iPhone the value of Nokia has nosedived. In the first quarter of 2011, Apple had cash reserves of nearly $66 billion, increasing its war chest by an astonishing $6.1 billion in just three months. These reserves are worth more than the combined market capitalisation of Nokia, Research In Motion and Motorola Mobility.

Nokia’s failings can be traced to its inability to penetrate the smartphone market. But on a chilly, rainy day, the company’s senior management had the attention of the world’s media for the launch of their new smartphone, the Lumia 800.

And nowhere is the Jobs legacy more painfully revealed than in the art of the product launch, the heavily stage-managed keynote address that culminates in the big reveal.

Today, every new product launch must stand up to this stress test, when multimillionaire chief executives are held up to the light. And very few pass. Since 1984, Steve Jobs’ place in the public imagination has been as the great showman, the Walt Disney of the nerdy tech world. Think of Apple and we think of Jobs standing on stage in black turtle-neck and jeans holding the future in his hands.

At Nokia World all the component parts were in place. There was a huge blue screen spanning the width of the hall, with a simple lectern out front. The area in front of the stage was cordoned off for “Media Only”.

It is here that journalists and tech bloggers sit, laptops open, live-Tweeting proceedings, giving updates on updates. The vibe is somewhere between a Coldplay gig and the Nuremberg Rally.

In among the media seats were rows of chairs suspiciously reserved for Nokia staffers. When Nokia’s boss Stephen Elop, a former Microsoft bigwig, took to the stage these blue shirted, chino-wearing interlopers went crazy, hooting and hollering. This is straight from the Jobsian school of media management. Fill the stadium with “meat” to give the cameras the impression that, a) you couldn’t get a seat for love nor money and, b) the crowd was “like, totally hot for Nokia”.

This contrasts to a usual press conference atmosphere, which has all the warmth of an ambush. No journalist would think of applauding. Ever. I applauded once, at a press briefing at a golf event. I never did it again. “What the f*** do you think this is?” said the senior reporter who’d taken me along, “Opportunity Knocks?”

The speeches quickly develop into painstakingly constructed stories. The Nokia Lumia 800, like an X Factorwannabe, exists as part of a broader narrative, an emotional journey.

Elop’s fable began when he “bumped into” a young man on his way to the auditorium. The man was 25 and from Beirut, where the old world meets the new. How’s that for luck? You’re going to the airport and stumble upon the personification of your brand’s target market. This is the first rule of being a successful chief executive: mix only with emblematic people, capable of carrying your new product story to a global audience.

Then, something odd happened. Elop diverted from the Jobs script and went off road. He cut across live to the factory in Finland where men and women in white coats were busy making the Nokia Lumia 800.

The aim was to reassure the markets that the company was on the ball in terms of lead times, batting back criticism of being sluggish to market. The effect however, was to highlight something Jobs would never allow to see the light of day: the back office. The secret was out. These phones are not made by elves. Those are actual human beings back there. If there’s one thing Steve Jobs knew, it was that we don’t want reality, we want magic.