At Macworld ’09, the only certainty is uncertainty

David Braue
5 January, 2009
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Since there’s nothing newsworthy happening this week in the land of Apple, I thought I might take this opportunity to wish you all a safe, happy, prosperous new year on this, the occasion of my first blog of the new year.

Because there is absolutely nothing of interest preparing to make itself seen on the stage of the Moscone Center; because there won’t be a throng of expectant attendees pressing against the doors of the theatre in their enthusiasm to bask in the legendary Reality Distortion Field™ (RDF); because Apple’s PR will in fact be pulling people off the streets and from the taxidermy convention three halls down in order to make up the numbers; and, most of all, because Steve Jobs won’t be taking to the stage this year; for these many reasons and many more, I can say of this year’s Macworld conference, there is nothing to see here.

OK, you got me: maybe there will be. But without Steve Jobs on stage, honestly, there simply won’t be that radiant look-into-my-eyes-and-pull-out-your-credit-card glow surrounding the attendees who are likely to trickle – or flood, depending on which way you place your bets – into the keynote. I mean, Phil Schiller? Who is this guy?

Marketing wonk or heir apparent to Jobs’ throne, I do hope, for his sake, that Schiller comes onstage with a mannequin dressed like Steve Jobs and does the speech while throwing his voice. If Apple hands out iPhone 3Gs to every attendee, perhaps nobody will even notice that Steve couldn’t make it this year.

Or, perhaps, Apple will launch something amazing, earth shattering, unstoppably brilliant, as a last hurrah for Steve. Or, more likely, it will announce the final death of the mini, the release of some new iPod feature for sucking money out of our wallets faster than ever, or its long-mooted jump into the enterprise by acquiring Sun Microsystems.

I, for one, am hanging out for Schiller to give a totally ordinary speech with a few product upgrades – iMovie ’09, for example, with a new feature that makes it actually work like a video editor, or a Mac mini that doesn’t sport years-old technology, or a 56-core Mac Pro using OpenCL to fold proteins like I spin BS – and then say ‘oh, just one more thing’ with a smile.

‘Oh, yes?’ we will all ask, edging forward in our chairs and reaching instinctively for our MasterCards while the room buzzes with electric enthusiasm.

“Would the owner of the car with license plate 4GF6639X please return to your vehicle?” Schiller will respond. “You’ve left your lights on.” And he’ll walk off the stage.

And while everybody looks at their neighbours and starts contemplating a riot, he’ll peer around the curtain and say “AndbythewaySteveJobsblesshissoulhasretiredbutdidsaysolongandthanksforallthefishandyoucanseethenewApplenetbooksinthefoyerthankyouandGodblessandIreallymeantitabouttheheadlights.”

If you think I’ve lost my marbles, well, perhaps I have (just wait until you see me at 5am on Wednesday). Or, perhaps, I am just another victim of the post-Jobs ennui that is likely to weigh over Macworld like a heavy yoke over the neck of the poor soul chosen to succeed him. After all, for the past 10 years, Steve Jobs has been the Macworld Expo, man, and where will we get our RDF fix once he’s gone?

Forget the products: Sun had McNealy, Microsoft had Gates, Oracle had, er, has, Ellison. Apple without Steve Jobs will be like Laurel and Hardy without Stan Laurel, or peanut butter and jam without the jam, or Cheech and Chong without illegal substances.

And no matter what a great job Schiller does on stage; no matter whether Apple keeps the analysts happy; no matter do no matter what great products it throws our way (heck, they’d better be great because Apple’s share price can’t afford to fall any further); Apple will never be the same. Because 2009, it is clear, is the end of the Jobs Dynasty – and the beginning of a great period of uncertainty.

Or maybe, just maybe, not. Because we all know Jobs, a man who could get a standing ovation after reading the Cupertino White Pages, won’t simply drop his interest in the company he led to massive success over the past decade; heck, don’t be surprised to see puppet strings trailing down to Schiller’s lips from the upper reaches of the theatre.

Whether he’s testing the waters for a management takeover, or actually launching some new product, or just filling in while Jobs suns himself on the French Riviera, you can bet every second of Schiller’s time on stage will be carefully stage-managed by PR hands, outside consultants, and maybe even a few Geniuses from the local store to keep everybody in order by demanding appointments before answering questions.

It is, I would posit, the most unpredictable Macworld keynote ever, if only because we have lost the certainty of an unquestioning audience awash in residual RDF. The speech is going to be pivotal for Apple – and interesting for us all. And not just because of the products.

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