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Macworld Expos past, present and future

by Peter Hess (phess@mit.edu), January 15, 2002

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Macworld Expo/San Francisco 2002 is over, and a lot of analysis has been done of the incredibly hyped announcements that were made. While that’s useful, we can also step back and look at what this Macworld Expo, and other Macworld Expos past, tell us in general about how Apple uses these events, and thus what to expect from future shows. With these insights we can potentially free ourselves from the grip of the rumor-mongering press and Apple’s publicity machine (not that we will).

Before going into that, though, there’s a more fundemental question to ask ourselves: Why do we care? What is this infatuation with, what is the final analysis, just another big company trying to push product? Why do people avidly follow rumors about Apple’s forthcoming announcements at not just one but at least a half dozen "rumors" sites on the Web? Are you checking out www.nikerumors.com to see what your next pair of sneakers might look like, or www.dunkindonutsrumors.com to see what might be bubbling to the surface of the vat in the donut labs? Didn’t think so. And the mania extends beyond the ranks of deranged Mac groupies (though we have the most severe strain of it) to the general interest press. The media show an inordinate, and often morbid, interest in Apple’s prospects and machinations. When, for example, was the last time you can recall Time magazine running an unpaid product advertisement on its front cover, as it did for the new flat-panel iMac?

My theory is that at least part of the explaination lies in the long running life-or-death struggle that Apple has been starring in. Constantly leaking market share, the company nevertheless manages to hang on pluckily, episode after episode. Its struggle becomes our struggle. And there is the eternal hope that, someday, an “insanely great” product will emerge to rescue Apple (and us) from the brink of doom. Add to that the presence of a great and powerful antagonist, and you’ve got the stuff of high drama, as long as you can successfully imagine that the participants are more than just bloodless corporations out to make a buck. And, romantics that we are, we do.

So, on to Macworld Expo. What can we learn?

Apple has embraced hype. This has long been apparent to those who were willing to see it. Steve Jobs, master of the reality distortion field, excels at creating and exploiting hype. “Insanely great” isn’t a model of modest understatement. The intense secrecy that surrounds each Macworld keynote is only useful to keep the public in tremulous anticipation of coming announcements. Jobs’ “tasteful” and wry presentation style may have in the past managed to fool some of us into thinking that the aura surrounding these keynotes was something other than skillful press agentry. This time around, however, Apple emerged from the wings in pink sequins and feather boa to cry from its Web site, “Beyond the Rumors sites. Way Beyond” (and such like), and there could no longer be any doubt of its Barnumesque intentions. Riding on the back of the hype tiger brings the significant attendant risk of winding up being mauled by it when expectations are not met. It could be that Apple, finding that its fans and the media would not let it be just an ordinary Fortune 500 company, decided that managing hype was better than being its unwilling victim. Maybe it is just playing the hand it’s been dealt. In that case, at least it has a world class player in Steve Jobs.

Expect one and a half product introductions per Apple event. This is an easy one. Given the need to continually feed the hype machinery with a major event every three months, Apple has to time its new product releases accordingly. Even if the G5 tower and the flat-panel iMac were both ready to be introduced at this week’s Macworld, it would have been incumbent on Apple to hold back one of them for a future blast. Otherwise the media message would be mangled in the confusion, and the next event would be guaranteed to come up short by comparison. Looking back, one hardware and one software product introduction by Apple per Macworld event seems about par.

In the final analysis, despite all the secrecy and the hype, surprises that accompany Macworld Expo announcements are usually small ones, particularly to those of us who follow the Mac’s progress microscopically. If you didn’t know that a flat-panel iMac was in the offing, you are truly not one of the faithful. We already can be pretty sure that the coming Macworld Expos will see G5 towers and Mac OS X 10.2. It would not be surprising to see a G4 iBook with iMac-like specs and a G5 TiBook. More speculatively, perhaps we’ll see a product exploiting 802.11a wireless networking. If that’s all there is, is that bad news? The answer lies in the details. If the recently announced iMac had had a G3 processor, a Rage 128 graphics chip and cost US$1700, it would have been a major disappointment. The more powerful and affordable machines we got were generally regarded as a pleasant, if mild, surprise. If Mac OS X 10.2 has user interface refinements that answer some of the persistent critics of the system, that will be important, encouraging news. If not, bummer!

Some announcements are just not Macworld Expo material. Rumors accompanying upcoming Expos often center on possible corporate acquisitions – just the sort of thing that cautious executives and boards would want to keep far away from the glare of the Expo’s hype, speculation, and post-game analysis. In light of the inordinate effect that pre-Macworld anticipation and post-Macworld disappointment already have on the company’s stock price, it would be most imprudent to up the ante by folding corporate wheeling and dealing into the Macworld agenda. Future digital lifestyle products, like the “revolutionary” iPod, probably will never be invited to the Macworld ball, not being Macs, after all. The PDA/cellphone that has been mentioned in some quarters sounds like it could exist as a real product in the marketplace. If an Apple version of this interesting, but not exactly groundbreaking, device sees the light of day, it will probably be announced at its own press event. Prior to the announcement, expect a few weeks of serious hype and speculation guaranteed get your pulse racing.

In our hearts, we know that we are being manipulated and that our most lofty Macworld hopes and dreams are likely to be dashed on the shores of reality. But we are addicts, many of us, drawn to the world of Mac rumor and speculation like moths to flame, and would not have it any other way. Now about Macworld Expo/Tokyo...

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