The Keynote’s The Thing

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Two years ago, I sat in Moscone Center as Steve Jobs used his Macworld Expo keynote to usher in his self-proclaimed “Year of the Laptop.” If the exact details of that keynote have faded from memory, that was the morning Jobs pulled back the curtain on the 12-inch and 17-inch PowerBooks, which remain part of Apple’s portable offerings today. But beyond introducing the new laptops, Jobs’s address to the Mac faithful—which also marked the debut of Keynote, Safari, Final Cut Express, and the integrated iLife suite—also kicked off a very productive year for Apple. By the time the Worldwide Developers Conference kicked off that June, the company had updated its Power Mac, eMac, and iMac lines, rolled out new versions of its professional digital-video editing tools, and launched an online music store that wound up grabbing a headline or two. That’s a fairly impressive burst of activity, and it all stemmed from the January morning Jobs took the stage at Moscone to declare his undying support for all things laptop.

That’s what we call an effective Expo keynote.

Let’s rewind a little bit to July 2002. It’s another Macworld Expo—the last New York event Apple ever attended, actually—and another Steve Jobs keynote. And this time the Apple CEO took center stage to announce… well, not much of anything actually. Yes, there was the 17-inch iMac, but that machine was virtually the same as the flat-panel desktop that debuted with such a splash six months earlier, only with a slightly bigger screen. Oh, and there was the launch of .Mac, the repackaged offering of online services that had previously been available for free but now cost $99 a year—a turn of events that whipped the masses into something a few degrees short of a frenzy. With the air sufficiently drained from the room, it should be little surprise that Apple and Mac users staggered out of that expo and spent the next six months adrift until Jobs hatched on to that Year of the Laptop business.

That .Mac keynote? Less effective than the other one.

There’s an important point to be found in these two wildly divergent keynotes, and no, the takeaway lesson isn’t that if Steve Jobs starts talking about .Mac tomorrow, you’d best to beat a hasty retreat to the exits. Rather, the thing I think this object lesson underscores is how important Steve Jobs’s Expo appearances actually are—not just when it comes to the obvious task of unveiling new products but also for the far more important role of setting the tone for the Mac universe for the coming months.

Yes, much of the chatter immediately following a keynote focuses on the reaction to whatever new gadget or program or Mac turns out to be behind the curtain. (We’ll certainly have our share of post-keynote chatter in this space by this time tomorrow.) But what often gets lost in the shuffle is the implications for what this means for gadgets, programs, and Macs three months, six months, or even a year down the road. The keynote is Jobs’s opportunity to let Mac users know not only what Apple has now, but what it might offer in the very near future. And I’m not just talking about a product that gets announced during the keynote but winds up shipping in mid-February.

In the immediate aftermath of tomorrow’s keynote, everyone will be talking about whatever new products Jobs announces—the specs, the price, the availability. And that’s probably how it should be. But there are going to be some other equally important questions about tomorrow’s new product announcements: Is this product part of a new strategic shift for Apple? Is it designed to attract new customers to the platform, or is it aimed at existing Mac users? And perhaps most significantly, what does this product portend for Apple’s immediate future?

The answers to those questions won’t be immediately apparent. But asking them will give us an idea of where Jobs and Company plan on taking us in the next few months. And it will help put whatever products do get announced tomorrow in context.

Ah, but what will those products wind up being? That’s the million-dollar question, and one that, unfortunately, I’m not in any position to answer. Because after half-a-dozen keynotes where I’ve forecasted Apple-branded PDAs and cell phones that never actually materialized, I’m staying out of the prognostication business for the simple reason that all my predictions as of late, whether Apple-related or otherwise, have turned out to be pathetically, ridiculously wrong. (Or perhaps I’ve simply forgotten about the St. Louis Cardinals’ stirring seven-game World Series win amid my preparations for President-elect Kerry’s inauguration.) And I just can’t bear the thought of another prediction gone publicly awry.

Besides, with my luck, the one year my predictions turn out to eerily coincide with reality will be the same year Apple files lawsuits against anyone claiming to have the slightest inkling what it’s up to. So I think I’ll take a pass at any crystal ball-gazing, if you don’t mind.

Instead, I’ll let others speculate on whether tomorrow’s keynote will deliver a flash-based iPod or a sub-$500 monitor-less iMac—two of the more popular rumors being circulated on sites lacking my fear of litigation. I have no idea what Steve Jobs has in store for us tomorrow, other than whatever it is will go a long way in determining whether Apple has a bright spring or a long winter ahead of it.

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