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No Jobs Keynote at Apple’s Last Macworld Expo

Apple delivered a one-two punch via press release on 16-Dec-08, announcing that CEO Steve Jobs will not deliver the keynote address at the Macworld Conference & Expo – a presentation slot he’s used for many years – and that Apple will no longer exhibit at the trade show after this year.

Macworld Expo brings together tens of thousands of members of the Mac community, including consumers, IT staff, graphic designers, and, of course, journalists.

We at TidBITS have a long history with the show. Adam has attended every Macworld Expo in San Francisco since 1992, and, with only one exception, all of the east coast Macworld Expos since 1989. The shows are an important aspect of our business, largely because we all work from home, spread out across the globe. The face time we get at Macworld with each other, along with other industry colleagues, company reps, and developers has been a key element in how we make and maintain relationships, generate content, and do business. We all wonder what’s to come.

Schiller Replaces Jobs for Keynote — The most visible change this year is that instead of Steve Jobs delivering the Tuesday, January 6th keynote, we’ll hear Senior Vice President of Worldwide Product Marketing Phil Schiller speak. We’ve met Schiller on several occasions, and he’s an easy-going guy whose title and manner belies his importance to Apple and his reach throughout the company.

Schiller occupies a position akin to Jonathan Ive, Apple’s senior vice president of industrial design, in terms of his purview and significance. Schiller is known for acting as the comic foil to Jobs in on-stage presentations, appearing in the audience to take a phone call or engage in a multi-person iChat AV session.

Apple and Macworld Expo typically announce Jobs’s participation as the keynote speaker several weeks before the event, in what’s been considered a pro forma decision made long ago. (We don’t know if that’s true, but it’s how it’s always appeared.) We wondered where that press release had gotten to a few weeks ago.

Since Steve Jobs’s gaunt appearance at the 2008 Worldwide Developers Conference, reporters, bloggers, and Mac users of every stripe have been speculating about whether Jobs was suffering from an undisclosed health problem, a recurrence of the pancreatic cancer that he suffered from in 2003 and 2004, or even a non-life-threatening consequence of that surgery.

This move by Apple doesn’t necessarily mean anything about Jobs’s health, but it certainly doesn’t contribute to future confidence about his role in the company. Without a public succession plan, and with investors and analysts focused on Jobs’s inimitable nature in product development and marketing strategies, expect to see a lot of coverage explaining how Apple’s future is dim.

No Future Exhibitions by Apple — The second part of the news is potentially more devastating to the Mac community, as Apple said the company won’t participate as an exhibitor in Macworld Expos after this January 2009 event. The company has been a cornerstone of Macworld in San Francisco since its inception, and occupies an enormous space in the middle of the main hall.

In 2002, Apple decided to stop exhibiting at the mid-year Macworld Expo, which had taken place for many years in Boston, then moved to New York in 1998 (see “Apple, IDG World Expo Play Hardball Over Macworld Expo,” 2002-10-21). Apple did show up at the 2003 Macworld Expo in New York, albeit in a limited fashion, but did not follow when Macworld Expo moved back to Boston in 2004. Without Apple, attendance at Macworld Boston plummeted in 2004 and 2005 (see “Macworld Boston 2005: An Intimate Affair,” 2005-07-18), and the show was cancelled shortly after (see “Macworld Boston Cancelled,”

The January expo has always been in San Francisco, and has been one of the must-attend events on every Mac journalist’s schedule. Increasingly, mainstream journalists have been forced to attend as well, as Apple has come to dominate the digital music industry and play a large role in the mobile phone world.

Over the last few weeks, two regular large exhibitors – Adobe Systems and Belkin – announced their plans to pull out of exhibiting, quite late in the game. Paul Kent, General Manager for Macworld Conference & Expo, emphasized that there were still hundreds of vendors, and more in pure numbers than in 2008.

At last year’s Macworld Expo, the show was spread between the large South Hall of Moscone Center and the new West Hall, and while there were unused spaces used for lounges and other purposes, it was clearly a vibrant event, made even better by the variety of companies present (see “Mac Industry Marching to a Different Beat,” 2008-01-21).

Why, Apple, Why? Why Apple would cut its appearance at Macworld Expo is clear: Like every other firm in the world, it’s reacting to a likely current and certainly future drop in revenue as consumer and business spending drops through the floor.

If Apple were trying to shed a few hundred million dollars in expenses, perhaps partly for the bottom line (despite the billions in cash they have hoarded), and partly to demonstrate their financial discipline, it’s easy to see them starting with the millions they spend in hard costs and lost productivity on Macworld Expo.

One might think that the marketing benefit of getting millions of column inches and thousands of hours of airtime worldwide would offset those costs, but Apple has shown that it can market well without trade shows providing the venue for announcements.

Apple noted in the press release that the company has backed off from involvement in other shows in recent years, and the firm regularly hosts its own events at its headquarters in Cupertino, or at other Bay Area venues.

Apple said a few years ago that they’d stop making regular announcements of products and would switch to talking about hardware and software when it was ready. Macworld Expo, Apple Expo Paris, and the Worldwide Developers Conference were the remaining pins on the calendar at which buyers and the press generally expected something, and were disappointed if no significant news was forthcoming.

(After this story was first written, Apple Expo Paris was confirmed as canceled, Macworld reports. Apple didn’t participate in the 2008 show and had no commitment for future shows.)

Focus on the Present — For the time being, the only real change for the upcoming show is Phil Schiller standing in for Steve Jobs at the keynote on 06-Jan-09. Whether that means Apple won’t have significant announcements is another question – the last time Steve Jobs backed out of a keynote, Greg “Joz” Joswiak, then Apple’s vice president of hardware product marketing, wasn’t given much to announce (see “Macworld Expo New York 2003 Superlatives, 2003-07-21).

And despite the defections of Adobe and Belkin, Paul Kent was upbeat, saying, “We’re on track for a terrific show this year, with strong attendance numbers and nearly 500 exhibitors showcasing their products for another strong event. Macworld Conference & Expo has thrived for 25 years due to the strong support of tens of thousands of members of the Mac community worldwide who use Macworld as a way to find great products, partake in professional development training, and cultivate their personal and professional networks.”

Whither or Wither Macworld Expo? Without Apple as an anchor, can Macworld Expo survive? It’s a hard question. The Boston show collapsed partly because with two Macworld Expos each year, professionals involved in design, IT, animation, film, television, and other industries had already focused on the west coast event. (Many working in these fields are centered in San Francisco and Los Angeles, although New York has a strong design and video presence.) Plus, IDG tried to put on a traditional Macworld Expo without Apple, which was a big mistake.

But Macworld Expo has a lot of value to attendees beyond Apple’s presence, although it certainly has a higher profile in the average Mac user’s mind because of the worldwide press coverage of every utterance made by Steve Jobs.

After all, it’s Macworld Conference & Expo, and there are dozens of sessions happening at the same time as the more high-profile trade show floor. Large numbers of Macintosh professionals rely on the training at Macworld to extend their knowledge or learn new skills.

And while many users pay the admission fee for the exhibition floor to fondle whatever Apple just announced, the mere fact that it’s easy for most people to do that at an Apple Store shows that in-person talks and demonstrations with other Mac companies are likely more important. Even we journalists, who can often get free review units and not-for-resale copies of software, appreciate being able to compare multiple camera models or laptop bags, for instance.

Exhibitors and other companies also have off-floor rooms (either at Moscone Center or in nearby hotels) where they meet with journalists and bring favored corporate and academic clients for one-on-one briefings.

Plus, though it’s difficult to quantify, professional networking is a key aspect of Macworld Expo. We chose to send only Jeff Carlson to Macworld Boston in 1997, and Adam has long considered that a mistake because he missed out on the necessary face time that lubricates business in the real world.

Apple didn’t say that they wouldn’t be part of future Macworld Expos – just that they wouldn’t exhibit. Apple’s campus is a short distance away, and as long as Macworld Expo persists, the company may have something to offer, even without the expense of a booth.

So don’t count Macworld Expo out just yet. Paul Kent told us, “We’re committed to continuing to serve [the interests of the Mac community] at Moscone Center on January 4th through 8th, 2010. Future events will continue to provide quality education, dynamic product viewing, and will additionally focus on the amazing ways people are putting Apple products to work across all endeavors from desktops to iPhones, from games to music. We look forward to many successful years of Macworld to come.”

There it is – Macworld Expo will ride again in January 2010, and IDG is – at least at this point in time – planning to keep the show going beyond that. We applaud their tenacity and wish them the best of luck, since we would all miss Macworld Expo. The Mac community is about connecting with one another, and Macworld Expo remains the preeminent place to reapply the glue that binds us.

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