SUN VALLEY, Idaho – Apple Inc boss Steve Jobs was a no-show at an annual pow-wow of media and technology moguls in Sun Valley. But he was far from forgotten.
At a conference graced by such luminaries as Warren Buffett and Bill Gates, Jobs and the consumer electronics titan he co-founded were on the lips of the assembled media and tech chieftains alternately wary of and excited by Apple's growing sway over the industry.
Apple's increasing role in media distribution from music to books, its aspirations in advertising and hit products like the iPad have made the company one of the most influential players in an industry struggling to adapt to the Internet age.
For movie studios, publishers and music labels, Apple represents promising new ways to reach consumers as well as a potentially threatening shift in a balance of power that has traditionally favored the creators of content.
"It's hard not to be aware of them," said one senior media executive on the sideline of the conference, hosted by boutique investment bank Allen & Co. "Apple wants to sell devices. For them, the higher the quality, and the lower the cost of the content, the better."
It isn't clear who holds the cards -- Apple or the media companies. But its new devices are forcing the industry to rethink established ways of doing business, executives said.
"It's a multiple device world," Walt Disney Co. Chief Executive Bob Iger said when asked about the importance of new gadgets in the media distribution equation.
Iger said Disney's goal was to obtain mass distribution for content. But as the distribution landscape changes, he expected to see limited exclusivity content deals across the industry.
With a market capitalization of $235 billion, Apple recently surpassed Microsoft Corp to claim the title of world's most valuable technology company.
Apple seems to be everywhere these days. It ranks as the top U.S. music retailer thanks to its iTunes online music store. Its catalog of more than 200,000 App Store applications for the iPhone and iPad offers an opportunity to play a similar role in newfangled entertainment and gaming products.
And with the new iPad tablet, Apple is moving into the electronic book market, competing with Amazon.com Inc and Barnes & Noble Inc as a book distributor.
"Thanks to all the distribution models we have, content isn't scarce," said Paul Saffo, a technology forecaster and the managing director of Discern. "The scarce resource is the experience. Content is just one piece of the experience and it turns out the person closest to the consumer is the person who controls the experience. Right now that is Apple."
Sun Valley has garnered a reputation as a fertile ground for content deal-making. But Jobs wasn't making the rounds and the company hasn't yet announced iPad deals with many of the major content producers, including Time Warner Inc, CBS Corp and Viacom Inc.
Content owners -- though they might enjoy the distribution and audiences offered by Apple's gadgets -- have been hesitant about striking deals that leave them in a weak position down the road, mindful of how iTunes roiled the music industry.
Then also, Apple rival Google Inc -- whose Android software platform is powering a host of devices -- offers them a viable distribution alternative. Google CEO Eric Schmidt said at Sun Valley this week that he's had talks with all the major content producers about various projects.
"The value of his (Jobs') distribution system is only as good as the content that is available on it," Scott Singer, investment banker at Bank Street, said ahead of the conference. "I am still a firm believer that content is still king. So he needs Leslie Moonves, he needs Bob Iger, he needs Rupert Murdoch. He needs them to create great entertainment and information so people buy something."