Image: Steve Jobs
Paul Sakuma  /  AP file
In September, Apple CEO Steve Jobs prefaced the introduction of  the new iPod and iTunes 8, by standing in front of a screen that showed the words: "The reports of my death are greatly exaggerated."
updated 12/17/2008 1:30:50 PM ET 2008-12-17T18:30:50

It was the kind of news nobody really wanted to hear: no Steve Jobs at next month’s Macworld Expo, his absence seemingly a dress rehearsal for a time when the man who not only co-founded Apple but revolutionized personal technology won’t be a part of such events.

There’s plenty of speculation about why Jobs won’t be at the trade show, a traditional launch pad for Apple’s new products: Jobs’ health, a possible squabble with the company that organizes Macworld, the absence of new products to announce.

It is Jobs’ health, of course, that is of most concern to nervous stockholders during a time when “nervous stockholders” is a rhetorical phrase. But for legions of “Mac faithful” and fans, it is Jobs’ genius — and few, if any, would dispute that — that has come to represent a brand that symbolizes both style and simplicity. The Mac operating system is used not only in Apple’s computers, but its enormously popular iPods and iPhone.

Steve Jobs, simply, is Apple. His non-appearance at Macworld sets off alarm bells for good reason, whether it’s because the company is in transition, Jobs is ill or there is a trade show spat to blame — or none of the above.

“Steve is deeply involved in product development, and his personal sense of technology and style has been crucial to Apple’s direction,” said Avi Greengart, Current Analysis’ research director for mobile devices.

“He also does not get enough credit for being a being a keen technologist, building platforms such as iTunes and OS (Operating System) X that can be leveraged in multiple ways across the PC and device spectrum.”

Jobs, who recovered in 2004 from pancreatic cancer, has appeared thin and thinner this year at events where new products were unveiled.

In September, at an announcement of a new lineup of iPods, a message on the huge screen behind him started off the event with this news: “The reports of my death are greatly exaggerated.”

Second to the news of Jobs’ non-appearance at Macworld was Apple’s announcement that 2009 will be the last year it takes part in the event. (Apple senior vice president Phil Schiller will give the keynote address next month at the San Francisco event.)

Trade shows like Macworld “have become a very minor part of how Apple reaches its customers,” the company said in a press release.

Timing is issue
Paul Kent, vice president of the Macworld Conference & Expo, said in a statement Wednesday that, “While we are obviously disappointed by Apple’s decision not to participate in Macworld 2010, we are on track for a terrific show.”

Future events, Kent said, will continue to focus “on the amazing ways people are putting Apple products to work across all endeavors, from desktops to iPhones to games to music.”

Apple and IDG, which puts on the expo, and publishes magazines such as “Macworld,” “PC World” and “Network World,” have had differences in the past. In 2005, East Coast Macworld was cancelled after Apple pulled out of the expo because of a change in location from New York to Boston, IDG’s corporate headquarters.

But it is the timing of Tuesday’s announcement, just weeks away from the Jan. 4-8 Macworld, that has many concerned and wondering what is going on.

Jobs — admired, feared and revered — is both extremely private and secretive. He has made sure Apple is as parsimonious with what it says on matters it doesn’t want to discuss as it is over-the-top when it has a product to promote. And maybe it doesn’t have any for next month.

Apple has rolled out a hefty lineup of laptops, iPods, iPhone and introduced the phone’s App Store for application downloads this year.

While the company has been the largest exhibitor at Macworld, “other marketing channels in which Apple has invested, including its physical stores and Web site, provide an easier path to purchase around the year and with better scale,” said Ross Rubin, director of industry analysis for The NPD Group market research firm.

“Apple’s product line has diversified significantly from the early days of Macworld Expo,” he said. “Products such as the iPod and iPhone represent opportunities to attract many customers who don’t use a Mac and who therefore would not attend a Mac-focused event, much less travel to one.”

Creating more speculation
Rob Enderle, a technology analyst and head of The Enderle Group, agrees.

“Apple doesn’t need Macworld, and launching products against a show timetable has been problematic,” he said.

But, he adds, “for the last show, they would also know that speculation would shift to Steve’s health,” and try to avoid creating that kind of atmosphere.

The company’s short statement about the show, so soon before it, combined with questions about Jobs’ health, will add to the “perception” that Apple’s CEO is not well, Enderle said.

“Given the current environment, which is anything but trusting, the belief that Apple is covering something up will likely spread regardless of the facts,” he said.

Piper Jaffray analyst Gene Munster, in a report Wednesday on Silicon Alley Insider, said, “While we do not believe that this change provides any indication regarding Steve Jobs’ health, we do believe that it is a sign that we are in the early stages of changing roles in Apple’s management structure.”

Nobody, not stockholders and certainly not millions of loyal and happy Apple users, want that management structure to be Jobs-less, now or at any time.

Reality may reveal itself differently. But for right now, it remains much like Jobs himself: private and closed, in contrast to the public and open enthusiasm for Apple’s technology for users worldwide.

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