Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Macworld without Steve, Steve without Macworld

Live from the MacWorld Expo.

I stopped getting free all-conference badges when my speaking gig ended in 1998, and I haven’t paid to see the keynote in a while. So the substitution of senior VP Phil Schiller for Steve Jobs in today’s intro didn’t directly impact me. (The decision of Apple to pull out — likely dooming the Expo to die next week or in a year — will have a more direct impact, particularly now that Moscone Center is just a day trip.)

However, I think few people appreciate how big a deal the annual January show was for exhibitors. As an exhibitor from 1988-1993, preparing for the Expo always ruined the Xmas break. In only exception was in 1990, when Apple product delays forced the show from January to April, saving my company.

If there was pressure on third party Mac vendors, it was even greater for the star of the show. Within Apple, the pressure over the normally slow late December period was particular hard on those around Steve Jobs who helped prepare his legendary demos, and likely on Jobs himself. Largely unremarked in Jobs’ statement yesterday was his opening sentence:

For the first time in a decade, I’m getting to spend the holiday season with my family, rather than intensely preparing for a Macworld keynote.
A column in the UK Guardian from three years ago really captures what it took for Jobs and his retinue to prepare such events. The author, onetime iTunes product manager Mike Evangelist, has shared other observations about Jobs’ preparation on his blog, which certainly jive with other stories I’ve heard.

But Jobs didn’t keynote today, and Apple says it won’t be back at the Expo again. Instead, it will do splashy intros at events that it controls at other times of the year.

One column that I read yesterday noted that January is a terrible time for a consumer products company like Apple to introduce major new products. Update Thursday 1pm: After the keynote, NYT columnist David Pogue talked to Schiller, who elaborated on the misfit between Macworld Expo and Apple's annual product cycle.

I presume Jobs will do other elaborate keynotes this year, if for no other reason than to prove the naysayers wrong, something he’s enjoyed doing for 30 years. That is, assuming his health issues are as minor as he made them sound yesterday.

The actual news of Jobs’ health could be told in 50 words or less — and, as always with Apple, nobody who knew anything was talking.

So instead, the press instead focused on the issue of full disclosure, rehashing the 35 year old mantra of “what did he know and when did he know it.” Of course if there’s anything the press doesn’t like, it’s public figures not telling them all the information they want (as they unilaterally define it) when they want to know it. (Been there, done that.)

As always, Apple’s timing was perfect. By releasing the announcement early in the morning — both on the first work day of 2009 and the day before the Expo — it guaranteed multi-day coverage of the Expo and advance publicity for Apple’s announcement by Schiller. In addition to raising the stock by 4%, the brief press releases garnered 100s (if not 1000s) of stories on the web plus coverage on TV.

In the Wall Street Journal, Jobs got a cover photo (above the fold) and a story on the second front that had 4 paragraphs of news and 12 paragraphs of reaction. His photo was also above the fold on the front page of the SF paper and below the fold on the cover the New York Times.

In San Jose, our local rag had two stories on the front page, plus a column. One story played it straight, while the other attacked Apple’s secretiveness by using experts to make the point. Meanwhile, the column by Chris O’Brien (who I usually agree with) lit into Jobs and Apple like a journalist scorned:
Can we trust Apple going forward? The company disclosed Jobs' original cancer diagnosis only after he had been treated and was on the road to recovery. Now the company is backpedaling and spinning in the hopes that we won't notice the latest inconsistencies.

To earn back the trust of investors and customers, Apple needs to come straight out and acknowledge that Jobs' health is a material issue. It needs to state publicly that it will provide timely disclosure of his condition.

If Jobs wants to keep his privacy, he's entitled to do that. But in that case, he should step aside, focus on getting better, and let someone else take the helm.
Yes, as throughout most of his life, Jobs has erred on the side of privacy over candor. And yes, he’s not been fully forthcoming about his health issues, pushing the envelope on withholding information that bears on the company’s future and its stock price.

At the same time, Jobs and his doctors don’t know how it’s going to turn out, so there’s nothing he can say that will tell investors what they really want to know: will he remain the company’s active and vibrant CEo throughout 2009 and into 2010? I imagine that wild speculation (and intentional rumors to manipulate the stock) have reinforced the views of those within Apple who believe in the Zen-like “less is more” philosophy about Steve Jobs the man.

Meanwhile, market feedback has worked just as we would hope that it would. Institutional investors and analysts were not happy about the vagueness of last month‘s announcement, and while Jobs joked about it, it was clear that Monday’s announcement — however delayed — was forced upon Apple.

So Apple (and Steve Jobs) will only share as much information as they want to share, when they want to share it. As with other business kerfuffles, I have one thought for the press: get over it!

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