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EDITORIAL: From Edison To iPhone: Fun Trumps Technology

Posted On: 2/5/2007

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This year marks the 130th anniversary of recorded sound -- It was 1877 when Thomas Edison patented his cylinder phonograph. Initially marketed as a businessman's Dictaphone or an educational device, it failed commercially -- at first.

Twelve years later, San Francisco entrepreneur Louis Glass rolled out the Nickel In The Slot, which was history's first coin-operated music playback machine and a simple adaptation of the Edison phonograph.

During its five months on location in Frisco's Palais Royale saloon, the first Nickel In The Slot machine averaged $128 per week -- equivalent to $2,700 weekly in today's currency. This primitive jukebox not only brought music to millions worldwide -- it also triggered the creation of the music recording industry and the birth of companies like RCA, while making global superstars out of musicians such as John Philip Sousa and Enrico Caruso.

Where is such excitement in the world of hi-tech entertainment today? The nearest thing to it in our time is the iPod, created six years ago by Apple Computer (now Apple Inc.).

Last month, CEO Steve Jobs unveiled his much-anticipated, touchscreen-activated iPhone, a combination cellphone and iPod. It goes on sale next June for $500 to $600 per unit. Despite its steep price and various other issues (such as the fact that Cisco owns the trademark of the term "iPhone"), the consumer press swooned over iPhone and Jobs as it has done over few products and executives in the annals of American business.

What does all this mean for today's amusements industry? During the week of iPhone's rollout, I had dinner with a few music and game veterans who were in Las Vegas for the Consumer Electronics Show. One vet said: "The industry badly needs a galvanizing personality like Steve Jobs -- a man with a vision and a product that can spark that revival we've all been looking for since the mid-1990s."

If that's true, what can we learn from the success of Charlie Glass a century ago, and Steve Jobs today? First, note that Nickel In the Slot and iPhone both integrated key, existing technology from outside sources. Glass and Jobs saw the wisdom in pyramiding proven technologies, rather than trying to rely 100% (or even 50%) on proprietary technology.

Second, Glass and Jobs created a popular medium (not content) for their respective playback devices. Glass didn't found any record companies, and so far, Jobs has not founded any music labels (although he has created an animation movie studio).

Third, both men leapfrogged ahead of the rest of their industries with creative new applications that emphasized plain, old-fashioned fun. Charles Glass walked away from the dull, respectable use of the Edison Dictaphone as a businessman's voice recorder. He put the technology in front of the public, with a flourish, as a shameless entertainment novelty. You might say he was the original good-time Charlie.

In a similar vein, when Jobs returned to Apple a few years ago, he reportedly screamed at executives that what was missing from their products was not technology, but "sex," by which he meant razzle-dazzle entertainment value. This factor alone is what chiefly catapulted Apple ahead of all its competitors. It is why, despite the lack of a single pioneering technology in iPhone, Jobs accurately announced at the product's debut: "This is five years ahead of any other phone."

These points hardly add up to a magic formula for industry revival. But looking beyond the gloom of the trade's half-forgotten history, and penetrating past the hype of 2007's next big thing, it's worth recalling that certain principles remain powerful from one century to the next.

When the next boom arrives for the amusements industry, what do you want to bet that it will rest on these three pillars? It will pyramid existing technologies. It will focus more on presenting a dazzling experience and less on generating extensive brand-new content. And it will emphasize fun -- not technology -- first, last and always.