Steve Jobs’s greatest legacy: persuading the world to pay for content

Apple’s CEO always wanted to get something great to the customer without any obstacles – except that they should pay

Ten years is, of course, a long time in media. Ten years ago, if you wanted to download some music, your best bet was Napster or one of the filesharing systems such as LimeWire or KaZaA. There were legal services, but they were so dire they wouldn’t pass much muster today: there was PressPlay and MusicNet (from rival groups of record companies), which required $15 a month subscriptions for low-quality streaming (when most people had dialup connections, not today’s broadband). You couldn’t burn to CD. They were stuffed with restrictive software to prevent you sharing the songs.

What happened? Steve Jobs happened, mainly. The hardware and design team at Apple came up with the iPod (initially intended to be a way to sell more Macintosh computers), and then followed the iTunes Music Store – a great way to tie people to Apple by selling music. In 2003 Jobs persuaded the music companies – which wouldn’t license their songs to bigger names like Microsoft – to go with him because, he said, Apple was tiny (which it was, at the time). The risk if people did start sharing songs from the store was minimal, he argued. The record labels looked at Apple’s tiny market share (a few per cent of the PC market) and reckoned they’d sell about a million songs a year, so they signed up.

Apple sold a million in the first week of the iTunes Music Store being open (and only in the US). It sold 3m within a month. It’s never looked back.

Nowadays Apple sells TV shows, films, books, apps, as well as music. We take the explosion in available content for granted. But without Jobs, it’s likely we wouldn’t be here at all; his negotiating skill is the thing that Apple, and possibly the media industry, will miss the most, because he got them to open up to new delivery mechanisms.

Content companies have been reluctant to let their products move to new formats if they aren’t the inventors, or at least midwives. Witness Blu-ray, a Sony idea which wraps up the content so you can’t ever get it off the disc (at least in theory); or 3D films. Yet neither is quite living up to its promise, and part of that comes down to people wanting to be able to move the content around – on an iPod, iPhone, iPad or even a computer – in ways the content doesn’t allow. Apps downloaded directly to your mobile? Carriers would never have allowed it five years ago. Flat-rate data plans? Ditto. But all good for content creators.

Jobs pried open many content companies’ thinking, because his focus was always on getting something great to the customer with as few obstacles as possible. In that sense, he was like a corporate embodiment of the internet; except he thought people should pay for what they got. He always, always insisted you should pay for value, and that extended to content too. The App and Music Store remains one of the biggest generators of purely digital revenue in the world, and certainly the most diverse; while Google’s Android might be the fastest-selling smartphone mobile OS, its Market generates pitiful revenues, and I haven’t heard of anyone proclaiming their successes from selling music, films or books through Google’s offerings.

Jobs’s resignation might look like the end of an era, and for certain parts of the technology industry it is. For the content industries, it’s also a loss: Jobs was a champion of getting customers who would pay you for your stuff. The fact that magazine apps like The Daily haven’t set the world alight (yet?) isn’t a failure of the iPad (which is selling 9m a quarter while still only 15 months old; at the same point in the iPod’s life, just 219,000 were sold in the financial quarter, compared with the 22m – 100 times more – of its peak). It’s more like a reflection of our times.

So if you’re wondering how Jobs’s departure affects the media world, consider that it’s the loss of one of the biggest boosters of paid-for content the business ever had. Who’s going to replace that?