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Andy's Pre-Macworld Keynote Predictions

Ihnatko - Andy's Pre-Macworld Keynote Predictions

January 14th, 2008

In your Twenties, you go through a period when you really don't care much about Christmas any more. You'll go to the parties and you'll drink the booze and you'll spend the iTunes Gift Card, but deep down you think of it as just another day in December, pretty much. If you ever see someone with a tattoo of Santa giving you the finger, chances are they picked that little honey up at age 25 or 26.

Then you're in your Thirties and you have a kid of your own...and suddenly, Christmas is fun again. You get to experience it all over again with a fresh set of eyes...namely, those of someone for whom this is all very new and exciting and brilliant.

I'm going through a bit of that right now. My own tattoo is of a slightly dyspeptic-looking Michael Spindler, introducing a new line of Performa desktops intended for exclusive sale in Sears stores. It's just that I've been attending Macworld keynotes nearly my entire adult life and I've had time to develop certain antibodies. I.E., if Steve ended his keynote with the line "Now go out and kill!" I'd probably off only as many as I would absolutely have to in order to avoid being made fun of at the Tuesday night parties.

But a pal of mine is attending his very first one and the anticipation has left him in a rather high vibratory rate of excitement. Come Tuesday morning, he'll be right there in Row 290 with an ear-to-ear grin on his face and a giant foam "8.1% Market Share!" finger on his right hand. It's really quite adorable.

Usually, this is the time when I ring in with some predictions about the upcoming keynote, but although you can never predict a Steve Jobs address with any real certainty, this looks to be a keynote in which everything we think is going to happen, will happen. So for the benefit of my friend and anybody else who's never been there, done that, this year I'll switch off the "Macro" setting on the PundiTronic Analyzerô and offer a broader view.

First off, you need to understand that when Steve takes the stage on Tuesday, he's not there to talk to us, i.e., you folks and me, i.e., the extended and interbreeding family of longtime Mac users. His true function is to speak to us, i.e., me and other folks who didn't have to wait in line to get in, i.e., the insular and never-been-kissed corps of media and analysts.

Apple's happy that so many Mac fans are there, of course. But it's the same sort of gratitude that a stand-up comic has for a warm, vocal crowd when the producer who books people for "The Tonight Show" is in attendance. The users can generate an uptick in the sale of iPods and MacBooks, but the analysts can drive up the stock of the whole company. More troublingly, they can drive it down. Media wonks like myself tend to have a less-direct influence, but the fact is that we're there with our notebooks and our cameras and for this day, Apple has the full and complete attention of anyone with access to hundreds of thousands of readers or millions of viewers.

This understanding tends to act as a useful lens on what Steve is saying. The keynote is never about products: it's always about strategies and markets. The white whale from last year's keynote was the iPhone, naturally. But the true message there wasn't, "We'll be shipping a cool new phone this summer; you should start rolling pennies or whatever you need to do in order to be ready to give us $599 in five or six months." Steve's message was "Apple's expanding into one of consumer technology's hugest and most lucrative hardware markets." Sub-message: "Apple isn't a computer company; it's a consumer-electronics company."

You need to look past the shiny glass and metal of the new products. Apple will surely be showing off some flashy new hardware but this year, but their true goals for the keynote are more steel-and-concrete.

They need to demonstrate that the iPhone is a device with serious equity behind it. I'm an iPhone owner and author so you don't need to sell me on how cool and useful it is. But by now, the shock and awe has worn off. There's a new, hot phone each and every year, and now that the Consumer Electronics Show has packed its dogs and ponies away, there are a dozen new handset jockeying for the 2008 title. Apple now needs to establish that this is an entire new type of phone -- better than a phone, a whole new computing platform -- with a bright and unlimited future.

So it's important for them to show off brand-new features. As I write this, the $399 iPhone has one troubling thing in common with the basic phone that people get for free with a 2-year contract: its feature set was locked-in at the moment of manufacture. If you need a project organizer or a mail app that works with Microsoft Exchange, there's no way to add that feature on later.

The iPhone software development kit adds extra credibility to the iPhone and although I'm fairly confident that Steve won't write, build, and deploy an iPhone app live and on stage, expect him to hammer that basic point home rather firmly. It's the difference between selling one iPhone to one consumer and selling them in batches of 400 to entire corporations.

And while I don't think this will be the place where Steve shows off the new iTouch tablet, this is definitely a valuable opportunity to demonstrate that the multitouch technology has a big, big future beyond ordering pizzas and playing Tito Puente albums. A demo of the full capabilities of the SDK -- a kit that, curiously, won't be released until seven months after the release of the iPhone, even though you'd have to think that it was capable of building iPhone apps back during the spring of 2007 -- will indicate that this fall, Steve might blow the roof off of a different venue this fall with something iPhone-like, but far larger and more radical.

This is also a delicate time for the iTunes Store. The music industry's increasing desperation to blunt the Store's dominance has been a big boon to all consumers. Seven years ago, the idea of the music industry selling high-quality copyrighted music in MP3 format with no content controls of any kind was unthinkinable. Last year, it became inevitable. Distributors would never have jumped on the MP3 bandwagon so authoritatively if not for the fact that it's currently the only big weapon they have against Apple. They desperately want to negotiate more lucrative terms...but after a year that saw CD sales dip another 10% they also desperately need to sell music that's compatible with the world's most popular line of players.

Right now, the iTunes Store is practically the only game in town for music downloads, and quite literally the only source for movies and TV shows. But Apple hasn't Amazoned the market yet. If the media industries were to have an alcoholic's Moment of Clarity and realize that the only way to sell their content on their own terms is to do as they've done with CDs and DVDs and make any specific vendor completely irrelevant, the iTunes Store could become just another store in a very crowded mall.

Rest assured that any announcements regarding new studio deals, movie rentals, or the spread of iTunes Plus and the degree to which the Store is pantsing its competition sales-wise are more than the usual excuse to test out the new chart and table features of the current "Steve-only" beta of Keynote '09. Apple's successes have usually been built on revolutions. But the dominance of the iTunes store is built on small but steady steps forwards and no steps backward. If they're going to hold on to their dominance over digital delivery, they need to do more than add new functions and credibility to the store. They also need to maintain the impression that purchasing content from competing services is like giving your best friend Flooz bucks for his birthday.

Okay, you're wondering about the actual computers now. I dig. The Mac line (and the OS) are the persistent middle-children of the Mac line. They don't get as much attention as they deserve, even though they consistently get good grades, come home before curfew, keep their rooms tidy, and while they know how to have a good time, they never do anything that would land them on a "Girls Gone Wild" video.

Mac sales are important. Absolutely. But in 2008, Steve has something way more valuable than (hopefully) a hot new design: he walks on that stage with his back pocket stuffed with figures demonstrating that market share is on the rise. In a quarter when most PC sales were sluggish, Apple posted better than 30% increases. Even better, Apple has somehow managed to become a credible player in the Windows market.

Expect: More charts. More graphs. More impatience from that demographic in the audience that has, at one or more points in their lives, chosen to christen a living thing under their care as "Woz."

Dull, yes, but it's hot stuff to analysts. The days when Apple was known as a struggling underdog are now a laughable and harmless memory, like a photo of your parents wearable bellbottoms. They managed to elevate themselves to Scrappy Alternative status, and then in the eyes of those who must separate all players into Winners and Losers, they became the company that revolutionized digital media and oh, they also still sell those Macs, too.

We're in the opening overtures of an era in which Apple is garlanded with success from the front of the Apple Store all the way to the back (please pay no attention to the AppleTV behind the curtain).

Even the Store itself is big and important news. It's hard to remember that when the Apple Stores were launched, it was in an era in which company stores were genuinely silly ideas. Apple's foray was widely seen as a desperate but necessary step to get their hardware sold and supported properly; existing retailers couldn't care less, and often used their dark and disabled Macs as a way to upsell a customer into a Windows PC that would earn them a larger commission.

Today, it's a destination as important as the Macy's or the Barnes & Noble or the liquor store that doesn't look too carefully at out-of-state driver's licenses. It makes Apple look good, and the current numbers are quite cheery.

So: when you go to the keynote, do enjoy the bright lights and the new colors. But try to hear the messages that are actually being sent.

Oh, and pretend to be surprised when Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr take the stage. They flew an awfully long way.

digs the Mac, and has been writing about the Mac for longer than most of us could tell the difference between a bite of Apple Sauce from a byte of Apple code. You can read his monthly column at Macworld magazine, and his blog at the Colossal Waste of Bandwidth.

Andy's latest book is The Mac OS X Tiger Book (US$16.49 - Amazon).

Ihnatko Archives.

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