With its decision to end its relationship with the Macworld Expo, Apple is cutting one of its last ties to an era in which it wasn't a technology powerhouse.
The shocking news that January's Macworld would be the last with Apple's participation--and that CEO Steve Jobs will not appear--reveals an Apple that has decided it no longer needs to make an appearance at the event that has come to define the company in recent years. In doing so, it's also preparing for a future when its iconic founder no longer dominates the stage the way he currently does while confirming a shift in its strategic thinking when it comes to reaching customers.
Apple relies on two types of marketing: one, the slick commercials with the cool music that showcase what its products can do, such as the Mac versus PC ads and the famous silhouetted dancing iPod listeners. The second method is the Stevenote: Jobs is a master at the art of presenting new products and rolling out strategies to both the public (Macworld) and the press (WWDC, iPod events).
Macworld was Apple's signature Stevenote, drawing rabid coverage from the tech press and a mention on almost every nightly news show in America the night following one of Jobs' presentations. The various other Apple-produced events during the year, such as the June Worldwide Developers Conference or September iPod event, haven't always generated as much buzz as Macworld, where Apple has trained the media and its customers to await the company's Next Big Thing. That fever pitch reached a peak in January 2007, when Apple confirmed the long-standing rumors that it would enter the mobile phone market with the iPhone.
But industry events like Macworld Expo have been losing their luster inside Apple for some time. This is not a company that spends much time hanging out with its peers in the personal computing and mobile phone industries; Apple is often conspicuously absent at the types of panel discussions and press events that draw other companies on a regular basis.
And quite simply, the nature of technology marketing has changed a great deal as tech has evolved from something reserved for professionals to something that almost everyone uses on a day to day basis.
Apple's newest legion of fans--teenagers and young professionals--are not going to wander around San Francisco's Moscone Center in January soaking up the scene when they can simply wait for the products to appear online or at the nearest Apple Store, or follow the coverage on their favorite blog.
Those customers can be reached through a combination of relentless television and Internet advertising and word-of-mouth campaigns, which Apple doesn't even have to engineer itself thanks to the legions of Mac bloggers and news coverage. But the company can't simply hunker down in Cupertino behind its advertising agencies and friends in the media; there's no substitute in business for the human touch, and Apple will need to make semi-regular public appearances to keep its machine humming.
So what if Apple could produce its own show, something akin to Oracle's gigantic OracleWorld lovefest in San Francisco every autumn? It could still draw the usual Mac faithful that showed up at Macworld every year and tailor much of the experience to the new generation of Apple customers.
Or it could hold a number of smaller events at its flagship retail stores in New York and San Francisco, drawing the same amount of coverage and fans while maintaining tight control of its message.
And that has always been one of Apple's top priorities. The company's tight fist on the outbound flow of information from Apple means that events like Macworld take on the utmost importance; Jobs' keynote is an hour and a half when this industry comes to a complete halt, as hundreds of thousands of people hit refresh on their live blog of choice to find out if the rampant rumor and speculation has come true.
To keep its position as one of the tech industry's most buzz-generating machines, Apple will need to find something to duplicate that experience without attending Macworld. And that of course brings up the elephant that has been in Apple's room all year long: the future of Jobs' association with Apple.
Apple declined to comment specifically on Jobs' health Tuesday, but the company has had to fight off rumors of a recurrence of his cancer ever since June, when he appeared to have lost a lot of weight. The move to have Phil Schiller keynote Macworld doesn't necessarily give any credence to those rumors--although watch the stock market run wild with them tomorrow--but no matter how you slice it, Apple the corporation is going to outlive Jobs the CEO.
The end of Apple's association with Macworld gives the company a chance to introduce new faces and new methods of putting together its most important marketing presentations of the year. Apple has been making room for executives other than Jobs for years on the keynote stage, but the most important topics were always reserved for Jobs alone.
And Macworld was always going to be associated with Jobs' legendary performances; very few current Apple executives could have hoped to duplicate that exact role. But if Apple takes this opportunity to develop its own event, with a broader roster of Apple executives and employees taking the stage to discuss the company's growing line of businesses, it would reduce the reliance on Jobs' appearance to set the tone for the company. That way when it does come time for Jobs to relinquish control of the company, Apple will have set a precedent for someone other than Jobs to deliver the big news at the event.
Apple is developing its own gravitational pull at this point in its history. The company has never been more influential or rich, and it is using that power and money to set its own agenda for the next decade.
It may seem obvious to say this, but Apple's performance in the future will mostly rely on the quality of its products rather than its marketing vehicle of choice. Still, don't discount the role that Apple's singular ability to whip the digerati into a frenzy has played in the company's fortunes over the last five years.
That has to continue in some fashion for Apple to remain a tech powerhouse.