Don’t shoot the messenger: Content, Not Delivery Marred Apple’s Last Keynote

As Apple’s Phil Schiller delivered yesterday’s keynote address at Macworld Conference and Expo, the company may have been trying to deliver the message that it didn’t need Macworld anymore. But what I took away from seeing the “Steve-less” keynote was that the company could do just fine without Steve Jobs.

I fully expect to get blasted for that statement in the comments that will appear underneath this column, but hear me out.

Schiller’s opening was masterful. He came out onto the stage declaring very convincingly that he was “personally excited” to be bringing the Macworld keynote to the group, and thanking the audience for “showing up” (which got the morning’s first laugh) and for bringing its “energy and enthusiasm to this keynote,” adding, quite touchingly, “from the bottom of my heart, thank you very much,” which brought the morning’s first round of applause and cheers.

It was a beautifully humble and sincere-sounding start to the keynote and subtly addressed any disappointment or resentment that it wasn’t CEO Steve Jobs standing on the stage. And it -- almost palpably -- seemed to diffuse any idea of a hostile reaction in protest of Mr. Jobs’ absence. It felt almost inconceivable that anyone would want to pick on a sweet guy like Phil.

Even when Mr. Schiller threw his first dig at the conference, he was apologetic. He reported that Apple’s retail stores were now getting 3.4 million customers a week.  “I’m sorry,” he prefaced his remark almost meekly, “but I have to make the comparison: that’s a hundred Macworlds each and every week.”

When Mr. Schiller introduced an updated version of Apple’s iLife suite of applications, the crowd seemed as enthusiastic about the new features as if Mr. Jobs had announced them himself. But when the description of iPhoto’s new capabilities started to stretch on, it became apparent that there would be relatively little substance to the day’s product announcements. It was the content of the presentation, however, not the presenter, which made the keynote start to lose steam. Had there been a revolutionary new “one more thing,” I think it would have made little difference that it wasn’t Mr. Jobs who held it up to the crowd.

All this is likely to have little effect on Apple’s decision to end its participation in Macworld, but Mr. Schiller’s stand-in performance may pay dividends to Apple in the long run. If it is indeed the products and not the personality that make a successful presentation, then it bodes well for Apple’s ability to survive Mr. Jobs’ eventual departure from the company. In fact, Mr. Schiller’s appearance may well have been a trial balloon to test that theory. I think it was telling that as far as I recall, Mr. Jobs wasn’t mentioned once in the entire address.

So if you thought Apple’s keynote this year was a disappointment, you’ll find many who’d agree with you. Even an Apple employee I spoke to said it was the company’s weakest address in a decade -- when the sole new product announcement was iTools. But the disappoint came in the message, not the messenger, and it serves to illustrate why Apple no longer wants to be bound by a calendar it can’t control. Without a compelling new product ready to unveil, even Mr. Jobs and his legendary “Reality Distortion Field” couldn’t have saved a keynote where the “One More Thing” was a capitulation to the record industry made in order to sell music without digital rights restrictions.