A Keynote Preview

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If you read the papers--and I wouldn't advise it, unless it's to see what that incorrigible Marmaduke is up to--then you'd expect San Francisco's Moscone Center, site of this week's Macworld Expo, to be like a ghost town. A softening tech market, a 78 percent drop from your stock's 52-week high, and the first quarterly loss since Steve Jobs returned as CEO will, at best, dim the pundits' enthusiasm for all things Apple. And at worst, it will have them ready to board up the windows at the company's Cupertino headquarters and dust off the Apple obituary articles they were ready to run back in 1997.

So you hear this sort of talk, and you don't know what to expect at Macworld Expo. Developers fleeing the Moscone Center en masse? Handkerchiefs and booze being strategically placed around the show floor to dull the ongoing pain? Steve Jobs standing on a flatbed truck, selling G4 Cubes to disinterested passersby for $1,100--no, wait, $999 , and here, take my watch, too?

As it turns out, none of that was going on Monday. Developers were busy assembling their booths, as they always are the day before Expo begins. My completely informal and unscientific survey of the show floor indicates that there are just as many booths as last year--and no black curtains sealing off expansive portions of the exhibition hall because of a flood of no-shows. All the Big Guys are here--the Microsofts, Adobes, Macromedias, and Epsons of the world. Palm's booth is about as big as a city block and the Iomega booth looks like it could apply for its own zip code. So if the Mac market is about to wither up and die, someone forgot to tell the people who make a living selling products to it.

That's when you realize that most pundits--present company included, of course--are full of hot gas most of the time.

Still, perception often trumps reality in this business. And the perception is that at Tuesday's keynote, Steve Jobs had best knock 'em dead if Apple is to regain any momentum going into 2001. Flashing lights, dry ice, a steady stream of celebrity cameos--anything short of that, the thinking goes, and it's another six months of grim headlines.

I'm not sure I buy into that reasoning, but I understand why people are looking forward to Jobs' keynote with keener interest than they might have if, say, Apple's stock was trading at $50 a share and the company had just announced record profits.

After months of gloom-and-doom reports, Apple certainly needs some strong word of mouth coming out of the keynote. But more important, the company needs something that will still generate positive buzz a few months down the road. Remember, the G4 Cube blew everyone away at Macworld Expo New York in July--and by September, slow sales and customer complaints about lines in the cube's casing meant the computer had gone over like a lead zeppelin.

So what kind of news will come out of the keynote? I'm sure I don't know. But I'm willing--and foolish enough--to make a few guesses.

Apple wasn't tipping its hand Monday. Its booth was surrounded by a black curtain that made the Great Wall of China look like a garden hedge. Mac partisans will be pleased to know that, if nothing else, Apple's booth is safe from attacks by Huns in the next 24 hours.

But we can use that curtain to make a few logical assumptions. At last year's San Francisco Expo, there was no curtain around the Apple booth the day before the keynote. Coincidentally, Jobs made no hardware announcements. In New York, Apple's booth did feature The Black Shroud of Ignorance. The company also happened to roll out new iMacs, a multiprocessor G4, and the aforementioned Cube.

The Black Curtain was back Monday. So I'm going to assume that new hardware is on the way Tuesday. New PowerBooks, I'm guessing--with a cool-running G4 processor and maybe a slightly different design. And Jobs talked last month about the need for faster CPUs and CD-RW drives, so why not a couple of faster G4 desktops as well?

The Black Curtain couldn't hide the very top of Apple's booth--a circular banner touting the benefits of OS X. So I suspect the new operating system will take up a large chunk of Jobs' speech--a prediction about as daring as forecasting that George W. Bush could, very possibly , be sworn in as president, as early as next week. Even so, not-so-daring predictions still count as predictions, and mine is that OS X plays a prominent role at Expo this week. Maybe Jobs even announces a shipping date tomorrow, though I wouldn't wager too much scratch on that.

The Wall Street Journal reported that Apple will put more effort into developing software along the lines of iMovie, and that's good enough for me. Besides, Jobs said as much last month, which lends credence to the rumors that Apple has some sort of MP3 application in the works.

That's enough good news to keep the Mac faithful at happy. And the prospect of faster CPUs, new applications, and a finished operating system should keep the media jackals at bay... at least until Apple's Tokyo show next month. Any one of those stories, if they pan out, will establish Apple as a company with a plan for riding out the tech market's current woes. And each are well enough in the realm of possibility that it makes me think they may turn out to be accurate.

Which means, with my track record, that the keynote will wind up being Steve Jobs on the back of a flatbed truck, peddling Cubes to the highest bidder.

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