What Does Steve Jobs Want? He's calling the shots in media. So is he angling to run Disney or hook up with Sony? His answers may surprise you.
By Brent Schlender

(FORTUNE Magazine) – Machiavellian minds see the recent Pixar-Disney brouhaha--when Steve Jobs abruptly abandoned talks to extend the animation boutique's partnership with the venerable Hollywood studio--as much more than a soap opera. In light of Jobs' stunning success with Apple Computer's iTunes music-download service and iPod player, they view Pixar and Apple as Trojan horses that Jobs can ride into the executive suite of some bigger, more storied company.

Certainly Jobs seems to have more clout now as an arbiter of popular culture than anytime since his salad days at Apple 25 years ago, when he first introduced the world to personal computing. As entertainment goes digital, Jobs has morphed from the IT industry's resident bohemian into a force to be reckoned with, not only in Hollywood and the music business, but in consumer electronics too.

All of which raises the question: Is Steve the showman bucking for a bigger stage? Rumors abound that what he's really after is Michael Eisner's job, a notion at which, in private conversation, Jobs snorts, "Why would I ever want to run Disney? Wouldn't it make more sense just to sell them Pixar and retire?" His ambition, after all, isn't so much to run a megastudio, much less theme parks or television networks (which he personally disdains), but, as he once told former Apple CEO John Sculley, "to change the world."

An even more intriguing possibility, given Apple's recent foray into consumer electronics with iPod and iTunes, is the potential synergy between Jobs' companies and Sony, the king of consumer electronics, which also happens to own a studio and a record company. Lately Sony has seemed to be a step behind the competition in every market it plays in, except for game machines. For example, the Japanese giant had all the ingredients and a big head start to do what Jobs did with iTunes and iPod, and it all came to naught. (It has a new service, modeled loosely after iTunes, now in the works.) Sony's PC business is as tiny as Apple's, and the company was surprisingly late to the flat-screen-TV parade, having to repackage monitors made by competitors like Samsung just to get in the game. Moreover, like all the other major studios, Sony Pictures is keen to get a distribution deal with the suddenly single Pixar, whose last five digitally animated features grossed more than $2.5 billion at the box office, while Sony's own digital animation unit is only just getting off the ground.

Sony CEO Nobuyuki Idei, who proposed buying Apple back in the early 1990s only to be vetoed by Sony's elders, clearly admires Steve, and visits him whenever he can. And he seems to recognize that Sony needs more swashbuckling leadership, given his recent elevation of PlayStation wunderkind Ken Kutaragi to also run television, home electronics, and semiconductors. ("Ken Kutaragi is our own Steve," Idei told me in an interview for FORTUNE's sister magazine Business 2.0. "Both of them are very creative and think they have all the answers.") What's more, Idei recently restructured Sony into what is effectively a holding company, with separate units for each of its main businesses. Thus it doesn't take too much imagination to speculate that he might find it attractive to partner with, or perhaps even acquire, Apple and Pixar, and let them continue to operate as independent entities, meanwhile luring Jobs onto his board of directors. Sony officials don't deny the idea has been discussed. All Idei will say is "We would like to work more closely with Steve."

From Jobs' point of view, Sony looks a lot more like a competitor of both Apple's and Pixar's than anything else. He's not in a single business in which he doesn't face Sony in one form or another. Sony's VAIO multimedia computers are the Windows PC world's closest thing to Apple's Macintosh; it was Sony, after all, that invented the notion of portable personal audio devices with the Walkman; and then there's the fact that Sony Music was the most stubborn and difficult negotiator of all the record companies Jobs dealt with when setting up the iTunes Music Store. And Pixar, after its experience with Disney, would much prefer to be the only source of digitally animated films to its next distributor. The bottom line, Jobs has told friends, is that he doesn't think Sony "acts very much like a good partner."

It's not that Jobs isn't one of the most ambitious entrepreneurs the world has ever seen. He is. But he is most effective when he is in his own sandbox. And despite his reputation for being impulsive, Steve can be as patient as they come. It would have been easy simply to have shut down Pixar during those first difficult 12 years. Or never to have returned to Apple after he quit in a huff in 1985. Apple and Pixar are the brands he cares about, not Disney or Sony. So it's far more likely that Jobs will continue to operate the way he always has, with a stubborn independence and unique creativity that give him a special kind of clout he would lose if he were a captain of the establishment. Like George Lucas, the independent filmmaker from whom he purchased Pixar, Steve wants to write his own script.