Macworld in Preview: Swan Song?

Macworld 2009
Workers prepare for Macworld 2009
Source: Reuters

Tuesday’s upcoming Macworld conference and expo in San Francisco will be historical — either as the last show to feature Apple or as the last show, period.

Apple announced last month that this show would be the last one in which it would participate. IDG, which sponsors and promotes the show, isn’t going to give up and throw in the towel on the show in light of Apple’s departure.

Instead, Apple watchers expect the first day of Macworld to showcase a whole bunch of new products.

And those products may be making their debut with one less cloud hanging over the show. Apple CEO Steve Jobs’ disclosure of his medical condition ended months of speculation both about his health and the reasons for Apple’s pulling out of Macworld.

His revelation also makes the atmosphere less distracting for any announcements made tomorrow by Phil Schiller, Apple’s senior vice president of marketing. Schiller, along with Apple COO Tim Cook, is widely viewed as a leading candidate to succeed Jobs, and will be assuming Jobs’ traditional role as the show’s opening keynote speaker.

“I think things just got simplified somewhat by Jobs’ revelation this morning, ambiguous though it was,” Van Baker, research director for Gartner, said to “People know he’s not going away as CEO, so that cuts the heat back on Phil in that people won’t be evaluating him as the new CEO. But the expectations are the same as before.”

That would mean no major announcements, but that doesn’t mean no news from Apple, with the rumor mill grinding out plenty of grist. The rumors include:

  • New Mac Mini and iMacs: The Mac Mini rumor is the loudest, with prototype images floating around the Web. The iMac and especially the Mini are both due for a refresh, and the new products would use the new graphics chips from nVidia, which Apple is currently using in its new MacBooks.

  • A 17-inch MacBook Pro: When Apple introduced its new MacBooks in October, only the 15-inch MacBook Pro received an update. The 17-inch version was not. Word on MacRumors and other sites is a 17-inch MacBook Pro will be introduced tomorrow, featuring the same one-piece construction as the 15-inch Pro and the standard MacBook, along with nVidia graphics and a fixed battery similar to the MacBook Air.

  • Mac OS X 10.6, nicknamed “Snow Leopard”: The update to the Mac operating system is believed to be due in the first quarter of this year, so this would be an ideal time for Schiller to show off new and exciting features.

  • iPhone: There have been persistent rumors of an “iPhone Nano,” a smaller version of the hot-selling phone, speculation about which has been driven by images thought to be protective cases for such a device. An analyst with Friedman, Billings, Ramsey & Co. added more fuel to the fire when they said that checks to parts suppliers indicated a low-cost iPhone was in the works.

To be or not to be

San Francisco’s ABC affiliate reported that 15 percent of the show floor has been allocated to iPhone application development, a pretty hefty amount of real estate for something so new. But Baker said that’s where the momentum is these days, for better or for worse.

“The App Store is the one marketplace that’s exploding, but we’re getting to the point where how do you rise above the noise, because a lot get unnoticed unless they get highlighted by Apple as a pick of the week,” he said.

Indeed, with hundreds of new iPhone apps hitting every week, it’s easy to get lost in the shuffle.

On a similar note, Baker said even without Apple’s presence, IDG shouldn’t give up on Macworld by making it a part of the Las Vegas Consumer Electronics Show (CES), which is produced by the Consumer Electronics Association and is also taking place this week.

While IDG might be able to pursue a tactic like renting out a Macworld pavilion at CES, that may not be necessary. With the demise of so many computing trade shows — Comdex and PC Expo, to name two — CES has become the default show for making news announcements.

As such, he argued, it’s impossible to be heard.

“Nobody does any announcements at CES anymore because there’s just too much noise,” Baker said. “CES is an opportunity for buyers to walk up and see products. A lot of vendors at Macworld are probably at CES anyway. They sell both PC and Mac products. It doesn’t make sense to fold Macworld.”

Still, it’s impossible to deny that Macworld, minus Apple, will be a “severely diminished show,” he said.

“The star power of Jobs and Apple announcements were clearly the drawing power of the show,” Baker said. “Is there still a need to highlight Mac-centric solutions? Yeah, probably. Will it be anywhere near as much of a draw as it was with Apple’s presence there? No.”

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