Monday marked the end of what for me has been a post-Christmas techno-tradition for more than a decade: booting up Quicktime on my computer to watch Steve Jobs of Apple pump me up on his annual lineup gee-whiz techno-gimmicks at the Macworld Expo.
Though I have never actually shelled out the dollars to attend the event, and though I have found some of the them pretty content-free, it has always been a red letter day on my geeky calendar.
This year, at the Macworld 2009 Expo in San Francisco, Steve Jobs (alias Mr. Apple iGod) did not appear, for health reasons — which was just as well, really, since even a salesman as legendary as he has become would have been hard pressed to inject any pizzazz into what was a pretty tawdry event.
The main “great new thing” at this, the last Macworld Apple will participate in, was the announcement that Apple is going to remove the digital rights management locks on its iTunes offerings, and introduce a variable price (ranging from 69 cents to $1.29) for the songs you can download from there.
While that might possibly be good news (assuming it means a lot of the older music on iTunes will drop in price from 99 to 69 cents), it might also turn out to be bad news for consumers (on the safe bet that high-selling new releases with go up in price from 99 cents to $1.29).
Either way, it is a long way from the kind of excitement Apple generated in the past, when it used Macworld to announce products like the legendary, original iMac, or the wireless iBook, or the iPod, or the iPhone.
As I dutifully watched Steve Job’s stand-in — the amiable but uncharismatic Phil Schiller — go through the motions of touting some uninteresting hardware and some pretty minor add-ons to existing software programs, it occurred to me that Apple appears to be in danger of losing not only Steve Jobs, but the creative fire he so famously brought to the brand.
My mind drifted to the late ‘90s, when Apple was an on-the-make company, looking to re-establish itself in a market it had lost all but completely during an interregnum when it was run by stolid, ex-Pepsi Cola corporate types.
When Steve Jobs returned to from Apple, after his expulsion from the company (and his adventure with the brilliant but hopelessly doomed NeXT computer), he inherited a company that was short on market share, devoid of marketing savvy, and mired in an operating system (Mac OS 8) that was embarrassingly out of date.
Knowing that the creation of a modern operating system was going to take some time, Jobs had to find some other commercial angle he could work to at least maintain, and hopefully grow, Apple’s share in the computer hardware market.
His solution was typical of the Steve Jobs style: the iMac.
While continuing to produce reputable, more “heavy metal” hardware for its core markets in the publishing, music and film industries, Apple scored a major commercial breakthrough with the stumpy, cutesy all-in-one iMac.
The machine was, in an almost literal sense, pure eye candy (or, if you will allow me, iCandy).
It was not particularly powerful, and it still ran the old, slow, single-tasking, multi-crashing Mac OS 8.0.
For all its faults, though, the computer was a marketing success.
First, it literally had eye appeal: It was a sweet unit to look at, kind of like a pleasantly pregnant television set.
It also had a number of design strengths.
It didn’t take up a lot of desk space, which made it ideal for things like school computer labs.
Also, it was easy to put together, because it made extensive use of USB technology for things like mice, keyboards and printers.
Apple followed up on that success with the iBook laptop, which featured the same penchant for style over substance.
The first one came in blue, yellow and orange, and looked — depending on whether you liked the machine or not — either like a clam shell, or a toilette seat.
With the arrival of a real operating system (the now venerable OS X), Apple could set about producing tamer, more respectable computers, and duly toned down the stylistic excesses of those early days.
Since then, Apple has gone on to score success after success with things like the iPod and the iPhone — so much success, in fact, that events like the Macworld Expo, once key to their public visibility, have become superfluous.
For better or worse, we look to be entering a new area in the world of Mac — a world without Macworlds, and also, I fear, without the colour and audaciousness of the Steve Job era.
That’s a shame.
The Apple of the Steve Job’s reign may not always have been sensible, or even technologically honest, but it was always an awful lot of fun.
Get well soon, Steve: The geek world needs your travelling magic show.
Rick Steele is a technology junkie who lives in Whitehorse.