Five things Apple needs to do at Expo

There are two important dates coming soon for Apple: Its last appearance at the Macworld Expo & Conference that began in San Francisco Monday, and the Mac’s 25th anniversary later this month.

With those two events so closely linked, it seemed that the stars would align to make this year’s Macworld presentation even more exciting than in past years. Then Apple suddenly announced its withdrawal from Macworld, saying it would not take part in the Expo after 2009—and that CEO Steve Jobs wouldn’t even be at this year’s big show. As the Expo’s primary draw since its inception, Apple’s departure leaves a cloud over future such events, although the 2010 Expo is still scheduled to take place. It also upset Mac fans who were already looking forward to the big speech.

But there is logic behind the move: Apple’s stores are hugely successful, reaching far more people throughout the year than the Expo can in a few days. And making a big splash every January practically forced it to release products on an artificial timetable.

Even with the Mac’s 25th anniversary looming, the chances that Jobs stand-in Phil Schiller—Apple’s senior vice president of worldwide product marketing—will unveil a major wow product isn’t in the cards. (Computerworld’s Seth Weintraub will be live-blogging Schiller’s keynote, which begins Tuesday at 1 p.m. EST.) Although rumors are flying about new Mac minis, updated iMac, the “iPhone Nano” and Apple apps in the cloud, this year’s show probably won’t feature announcements as dramatic as the original Mac or the iPhone. But there are a few simple things Apple could do to make this a memorable Macworld while bolstering confidence in company’s future among investors and fans alike.

Unveil products worth hyping

Clearly, there’s value in Apple’s products, even those priced at the higher end of the market. If Apple wants to maintain its current pricing, then it needs to continue pushing its integration, design and technological prowess to new areas, all the while maintaining and building out currently successful technologies. While that sounds like a tall order, Apple is in a unique position to make good on that potential. With software foundations like Mac OS X, the iTunes/App store, and the MobileMe platforms to build on—coupled with Apple’s lack of fear of cutting-edge hardware design—the possibilities are fascinating. That potential is basic reason for the hype that builds before every Macworld Expo. Along with Apple’s knack for showcasing its software and hardware, the accompanying media fervor is a given. All Apple has to do is release a product that’s worth the attention—and after the iMac, iPod, MacBook Air, the unibody laptops of last fall and the iPhone, a new wow! product isn’t just a pipe-dream, for fans and media it’s inevitable. Schiller should continue Jobs’ tradition. Cloud-centric apps, anyone?

Find a way to trim prices

No matter how well-designed, how au courant Apple’s offers are, all the recent talk of global economic crisis will take a toll. If people can’t afford to buy Apple products, they won’t buy them. That doesn’t mean they’ll be picking up PCs at Wal-Mart. But they’ll hang on to what they have a lot longer—and so will companies. While early indicators are that Apple had a good holiday season, it’s clear that the recession is having an affect on purchases. Since Apple has a healthy 30 percent average margin for its products, it might not hurt to give a couple of percentages back to the buying public in the form of lower prices or even discounts on other Apple products.

Have no doubt: Apple is a company that makes money by releasing products people find value in. Its usual tack is to add features to revamped models and leave prices unchanged. More value, same price. Go ahead: Ask anybody who has recently bought a MacBook Pro, an iMac or an iPhone if they think the money spent was well spent. They’ll likely say yes. But keeping those big margins in the face of economic bad times, at a time when Apple is gaining ground, could stall the company’s recent progress.

Showcase the talent

Here’s the thing: There are a lot of rumors circulating about Steve Jobs’ health. I don’t even want to mention them, so sickened by the rumors am I, but Apple needs to address the issue openly. (Note: Since this article appeared on Computerworld, Steve Jobs disclosed that a hormonal imbalance is behind his weight loss and that he will remain on as Apple’s CEO as he undergoes treatmeant.) There are signs that Apple knows this, including the not-so-subtle hint of change coming in the form of a Jobs-less keynote. Replacing Jobs as Apple’s sole voice has likely been in the works for a long time. While Jobs has always had help during specific portions of his keynotes, he’s been offloading more and more of the work to others. Just look at how he handled the October announcement of new MacBooks .

This is a good move. As brilliant as Jobs has been at turning Apple around over the last 10 years, it’s clear that “Apple” and “Jobs” are seen as interchangeable. They’re not. Jobs the man is not Apple the company. While it’s clear Apple—and the entire computer/music/mobile industry—wouldn’t be where it is now if not for Jobs’ vision, there needs to be separation between the company and the man; if only to soften the blow for investors who are easily spooked by rumors about about Jobs’ health.

After all, it was Jobs himself that told Fortune magazine: “We’ve got really capable people at Apple. I made Tim [Cook] COO and gave him the Mac division and he’s done brilliantly. I mean, some people say, ‘Oh, God, if [Jobs] got run over by a bus, Apple would be in trouble.’ And, you know, I think it wouldn’t be a party, but there are really capable people at Apple. And the board would have some good choices about who to pick as CEO. My job is to make the whole executive team good enough to be successors, so that’s what I try to do.”

Read Macworld’s article on the six Apple executives you need to know about

Plot a course for the future

Both in terms of leadership and in regard to their products, Apple has to leave the Macworld audience with the sense that it has a solid grasp on where the company is going. This doesn’t mean Phil Schiller has to spend keynote time plotting out leadership hierarchies or detailed product blueprints. But by the end of the presentation, investors and watchers alike need to have a sense that Apple is prepared to deliver successful products and services regardless of Jobs’ leadership. At this year’s Macworld Apple should parade its leadership team to help promote their different products even more than it has for the last few shows. Since Jobs is confident in Apple’s leadership, there’s no reason not to showcase the talent. And those executives, whether it’s Schiller or Cook or Jonathan Ive should heed Jobs’ advice and retain the laser-like focus Jobs is famous for.

“Apple is a $30 billion company, yet we’ve got less than 30 major products,” Jobs said to Fortune. “I don’t know if that’s ever been done before. Certainly, the great consumer electronics companies of the past had thousands of products. We tend to focus much more. People think focus means saying yes to the thing you’ve got to focus on. But that’s not what it means at all. It means saying no to the hundred other good ideas that there are. You have to pick carefully.”

One more thing…

With the Mac’s 25th anniversary looming, and all that storied history on everyone’s mind, Apple’s final Macworld would be incomplete without “One more thing….” Schiller should cap off Apple’s last Macworld keynote with a swan-song product announcement worthy of Jobs’ trademark keynote ending phrase. And, assuming he’s healthy, Jobs himself should deliver the line and the product. It would be an upbeat ending to the relationship Apple has had with Macworld and the Macworld-visiting fans, ending this chapter in the Expo’s life on a high note.

[Michael DeAgonia is a Neal Award-winning writer, computer consultant and technologist who has been using Macs and working on them professionally since 1993. His tech-support background includes tenures with Computerworld, colleges, the biopharmaceutical industry, the graphics industry, Apple and as a Mac administrator at a large media company.]

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