What To Make of Apple's Exit from Macworld

As Arik just blogged, Apple has announced that Steve Jobs will not be doing the keynote at this year’s Macworld show, and that this will be the last year Apple attends the tradeshow that has been the venue for so many famous Steve Jobs keynotes.

Of course, the first thought goes to Jobs’ health. The company declined to comment directly as to whether this was the reason marketing chief Phil Schiller will be doing the keynote, instead of Jobs. Rather, spokesman Steve Dowling says that since “this will be our last year, it doesn’t make sense for us to make a major investment in a trade show that will we no longer be attending.”

I pray that Jobs’ health is fine, but this reasoning isn’t very convincing. If there was ever a good trade show-related investment for a company, it’s Steve Jobs’ Macworld keynote. It pretty much guarantees headlines in major newspapers and business publication around the world, and has the added benefit of stealing the thunder from the throngs at the Consumer Electronics Show, often held the same week. Personally, I would think that Apple would have gone the other way: guarantee even more publicity by hyping the opportunity to see Jobs’ last Macworld performance.

Of course, there could be a reason unrelated to cancer to explain why Jobs is leaving the keynote duties to Schiller: that it won’t be much of a show, in terms of product news. The company just refreshed the notebooks and iPod lines, and there’s little talk of a new iPhone out there yet. While TBR’s Ezra Gottheil attracted buzz this morning by predicting a low-priced netbook, even he says this was based only on his own tea leaf-reading. Personally, I don’t see it happening. Jobs only recently said in October that Apple didn’t know how to make a great $500 PC that lived up to its quality standards. My guess is that the company hasn’t learned how since then (though I suppose it could argue it does know how to make a great $599 device, which is what Gottheil thinks may be coming).

Either way, this is a very bad day for the tradeshow business. Here we have a company with $27 billion in the bank, that gets massive, global exposure from a talk that rarely lasts two hours. If Apple can’t see the ROI in Macworld, what company can justify the tradeshow bill?

Of course, Apple is correct in pointing out that it has many other ways of reaching consumers, that other companies can only dream of. Apple knows how to throw its own events just fine, saving some of its biggest news for them in recent years. Dowling says this will continue. “We’ll continue to do these events as regularly as we have in the past.” Also, Apple now has 250 well-located retail stores, where 3.5 million people shop each week. Then there are its online efforts, such as how-to videos that accompany the introduction of new products to curious consumers.

I also wonder whether there is a far more practical reason for pulling out of Macworld. Rather than spend every December in a forced march to finish products and polish his presentation for the early January event, he and Apple’s employees may be able to actually enjoy the holiday season a bit. Let’s hope that’s the reason for Apple’s decision, and not anything to do with Jobs’ health.

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