Salmon of Doubt. Is it a menu option at one of Guy Fieri’s restaurants? Is it the freshwater fish version of Herman Melville’s white whale?
No, it’s one of the last literary remnants of a sci-fi great … and oddly enough, it might be one of the most apt metaphors for something left behind by Apple‘s (NASDAQ:AAPL) Steve Jobs.
Here’s the scoop for those of you who aren’t fans of sci-fi literature.
Douglas Adams, who passed away in 2001 at the age of 49, was an iconic British author, much revered among certain crowds for his Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (HHGTTG). Adams combined speculative fiction with a wicked sense of humor, and HHGTTG became a radio series, a best-selling novel series (the five books making up what Adams referred to as a “trilogy in five parts”), stage shows, TV adaptations and a 2005 feature film.
Adams also was into Mac computers in a big way and often was pictured fiddling with the latest and greatest gear from Apple.
Again you ask, what the heck does this have to do with Steve Jobs?
There are numerous similarities — a brilliant individual, a product that achieved cult status while breaking into pop culture in a big way and whose creator died young. Before Adams passed away, he was working on a novel he called The Salmon of Doubt. Found within the book are some quotes that show Adams also had leanings we’ve all now come to expect from technology. For example:
“We notice things that don’t work. We don’t notice things that do. We notice computers, we don’t notice pennies. We notice e-book readers, we don’t notice books.”
Sound familiar? It should. It’s very reminiscent of Jobs’ design approach in his later years, where he strove to ensure that Apple products “just worked.” Jobs sacrificed the open strategy of Google’s (NASDAQ:GOOG) Android mobile operating system for the closed — but smoothly functional (Maps excepted) — iOS for the iPhone and iPad.
However, Adams never finished The Salmon of Doubt.
An Incomplete Series
Adams originally had conceived of The Salmon of Doubt as one thing, but then started reworking it to possibly be a sixth book in the HHGTTG series. After his death, his publisher was left with an incomplete manuscript — but one that could possibly be the capstone to the HHGTTG books, which had sold around 15 million copies to that point.
Readers were desperate for a sixth book, expecting a brilliant conclusion to the series and a final masterpiece from Adams. The publisher was looking at a potential windfall because it wouldn’t just be fans buying a new Adams novel in a wave of nostalgia. Rather, the commotion over a release was likely to spur sales of the entire series among a curious public.
The problem lay in the fact that the manuscript wasn’t complete.
The Salmon of Doubt was released the year after Adams’ death. The publisher included the incomplete manuscript (pieced together from files on Adams’ computers), a series of tributes by other noted authors, some letters, short stories and essays written by Adams over the years, and some of his many anecdotes. Everything got packaged together under the somewhat misleading title: The Salmon of Doubt: Hitchhiking the Galaxy One Last Time.
While longtime Adams fans welcomed the book for what it was, The Salmon of Doubt was not the genius final chapter of the HHGTTG series. For the general public, the book was a bit of a letdown after the hype, and it failed to sell 15 million copies.
History might be about to repeat itself.
When Jobs told his biographer, Walter Isaacson, about his plans for TV shortly before his death, one quote in particular set off a frenzy: “I finally cracked it.”
For Apple fans, this could only mean that as his final contribution to Apple, Jobs had nailed the irksome TV problem. Expectations were cemented for a TV set with the style of Apple’s most iconic hardware, the ease of use of an iPad and an agreement for video content that would mesh together into a TV that “just worked.” Plus apps and video games!
No messing around with set-top boxes, no fumbling among a half-dozen different remotes. The hardware would have neighbors drooling with envy, and the content deals would free consumers from the tyranny of their cable company and it’s infernal bundling of channels.
Good-bye Microsoft (NASDAQ:MSFT) Xbox and its $50 games. Who needs a console when your TV can play hundreds of thousands of games, most at a buck a pop?
For investors, an Apple TV designed by Jobs also has reached mythic proportions. After dominating the portable music player category and hurtling into a leading role in smartphones and tablets, Apple needs to break into another new market to keep up those big share-price gains.
Taking over the living room would definitely qualify. A Jobs-designed Apple TV would presumably have the DNA that had disrupted portable music and the mobile markets. And the idea of Apple fans and the general public jostling in line hundreds deep to spend several thousand dollars on a new TV would make Apple’s current value look like a bargain.
Here’s the thing, though. We don’t know how far along Jobs was with his Apple TV project before he died. He might have come up with a nice navigation interface, leaving all the tough details — like content negotiations — untouched. And while Jobs had a good series of home runs, Apple also released some stinkers under his watch. No one is infallible.
We’ve been waiting years for an Apple TV and well more than a year since that infamous Jobs quote.
Still no Apple TV.
The anticipation continues to build. Apple fans want it, the public (caught up in the hype) wants it, investors want it. Surely Apple wants it, too.
The fact that there’s no release to date yet is likely a sign that Tim Cook, Jony Ive and the rest of the team are still working with the pieces of Jobs’ grand plan, trying to pull everything together into an actual working product. Ideally, one that lives up the lofty expectations — something that’s awfully tough to do when the visionary associated with it is no longer with us.
When an Apple TV is finally released — presumably as soon as next year — it might well be Apple’s biggest triumph.
It also might be a letdown — Steve Jobs’ own Salmon of Doubt.
As of this writing, Brad Moon did not hold a position in any of the aforementioned securities.