Don't fear the Mouse

To read the headlines in the newspapers the past few days, you would have thought that Disney spent $7.4 billion Tuesday to purchase Steve Jobs.

“Walt’s Shoes at Disney Could be a Fit for Jobs,” the Los Angeles Times speculated. Picking up that story, the Austin American Statesman asked: “Is Steve Jobs Disney’s Mr. Incredible?” The Associated Press informs us that “Jobs to become major Hollywood player.” (Editorial comment: Become ? What do you call swinging deals with record companies and entertainment conglomerates to sell their copyrighted content online for a pittance?) Cnet’s Charles Cooper asks the question that everyone else is hinting at in the most direct way possible: “How Long before Jobs is Disney’s new boss?”

Well, at least one thing’s clear about Disney’s purchase of Pixar —there’s one executive involved in the deal who’s inspiring a lot of water-cooler talk, and his name ain’t Bob Iger.

Jobs’ role in all of this probably explains why Mac users are so interested in talking about a pretty straight-forward acquisition that involves two companies with only tangential connections to the Mac market. (Admittedly, I may have missed the extensive coverage on what Disney’s buyout means for the future of the Mac version of RenderMan.) Let’s face it—Jobs is a fascinating enough person even to neutral third-parties. When you happen to rely on the hardware and software that his other company produces, his comings and goings are especially interesting, particularly on those occasions when several billion dollars change hands.

So at the risk of adding to the What It All Means din currently echoing around the tech universe, let me summon up all my speculative powers on what a Disney-Pixar match augurs for the two things most important to Mac users—the Mac market and Steve Jobs.

I think the biggest impact we’re going to see from this Pixar purchase is going to be on the content available at the iTunes Music Store—in that, there’s going to be a lot of it. We’re seeing some of that come to pass already, with Disney animated shorts suddenly arriving at the iTunes Music Store. But I don’t think this is just going to be a Disney-based deluge; I believe that other entertainment companies will ask themselves why the Mouse House should have all the fun and approach Apple about content-sharing deals of their own. (Well, not Fox apparently, but once Arrested Development is off the air, that’s one less Fox show worth downloading for $2-an-episode anyway.)

As for Jobs, I claim no special insight into his intentions or ambitions. But I doubt very seriously that he’ll wind up taking over Disney now or at any time down the road.

The main argument being advanced by the crowd advising Disney CEO Iger to hire food tasters and vary his routes home is that this sort of thing has happened before. In 1996, Apple purchased Next, bringing Jobs out of exile and back into the fold as an adviser; the next thing anyone knew, Gil Amelio was being hustled out the door, and Jobs was ordering new “interim CEO” business cards.

The only trouble with that past-is-prologue line of thought is that the circumstances surrounding the Apple-Next purchase and the Disney-Pixar one are not necessarily the same. Jobs founded Apple—he has no such history at Disney. And as the San Francisco Chronicle ’s Dan Fost notes in an excellent article, Jobs’ role at Pixar should not be confused with the hands-on approach he takes at Apple.

Which is not to say that Jobs will pocket his Disney shares and use his new seat on the Board of Directors just to jump to the head of the line for Space Mountain. He has ideas about content—particularly how it gets delivered in an increasingly digital world—and he’s got the track record and heft to make sure people pay attention to those ideas.

But there’s a big gap between proposing new directions in digital media and spending the bulk of your time negotiating three-picture deals with starlets. Steve Jobs’ involvement at Disney is likely to be an extension of the digital media push he’s already making at Apple—it certainly won’t affect any of the time, focus, or involvement he devotes to happenings in Cupertino.

OK, one off-the-wall prediction about a Disney offering where Jobs’ influence may be felt: at California Adventure —a really underrated theme park across the street from Disneyland in Anaheim—there’s a movie called “Golden Dreams” that, in the words of Disney’s promotional material, “brings to life the stories of the women and men who have made California the land of golden dreams.” One of the segments of the film features two unkempt youths showing off their homemade computer to a clutch of interested geeks. The full names of the two youths are never given—they simply refer to each other as “Woz” and “Steve,” with the “Steve” character being particularly adamant to a dubious “Woz” that one day, everyone will want to buy such a computer. In case the subtlety of this entire sequence prevents you from unraveling the mystery of just who these nameless impresarios are supposed to be, the next shot features the film’s narrator—Whoopi Goldberg in her greatest performance since Jumping Jack Flash —observing that this unnamed “Steve” fellow just might be onto something…as she takes a bite out of an apple. The segment is pretty hokey, even by the generous standards with which one must judge this sort of fare.

Anyhow, I suspect that soon enough, the “Golden Dreams” movie might undergo a judicious edit or two.

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