Apples European Vacation

And when Apple's moves on the Continent break precedent with long-established policy, I'm on it like a cheap chapeau.

Whether its thanks to Europes lengthy relationship with the Mac, my enduring friendship with many of the regions Mac developers and journalists, or simply a taste for the indigenous pastries, Ive long taken a special interest in Apple Computers performance across the Atlantic.

And when Apples moves on the Continent break precedent with long-established policy, Im on it like a cheap chapeau.

Last week, Steve Jobs tried something completely different with a trade show keynote engagement: At the same time that he confirmed his appearance at Septembers Apple Expo in Paris, Apples CEO actually took steps to contain the Mac communitys expectations for this show (the Mac makers highest-profile annual gig in Europe).

"My keynote will focus on Mac OS X 10.1 [and] iDVD 2," Jobs said in a statement announcing his return to Paris. "This has been an incredible new product year for Apple, so we dont plan to launch any new hardware products in Paris this year."

Thats quite a change of tactic for a chief executive who has carved out an uncontested reputation for keeping the kimono tightly belted until the bitter end. Ever since the initial iMac launch - and, one could argue, the original Mac launch in 1984 - Jobs has forged the element of suspense into a powerful marketing tool.

Indeed, some Mac enthusiasts have wasted no time deconstructing Jobs seemingly simple statement in search of a loophole that might admit a next-generation hardware release onto the Apple Expo stage. (I was particularly amused by a tongue-in-cheek posting to MacCentrals feedback boards that managed to put new interpretations on practically every word of Jobs denial.) Still others speculate that even if the media statement was watertight and sincere, Apples mercurial CEO might simply reverse his decision in the hours before his presentation.

Face Value

Withholding that piquant grain of salt - at least for the moment - whats the motivation behind this move? First and foremost, its clear that Jobs has taken away a lesson from Julys Macworld Expo/New York, where the relatively minor revs to Apples desktop Mac lines announced during his speech were greeted with disappointment by Mac fans whod worked themselves into a lather of expectation in the weeks leading up to the show. (Mea culpa: Even though I took a relatively conservative stance when handicapping the announcements at that show, I did buy at least halfway into widespread speculation that the New York show would mark the debut of a long-rumored flat-panel successor to the iMac.)

In light of that marketing misfire, Apples executive branch is clearly reassessing the breaking point between suspense and mass psychosis.

Second, even if the storied LCD iMac is very nearly soup, the current version remains an important element in the success of this years education sales. Having sworn to keep its eye on this key market after last years alarming slump, Apple is hardly going to want speculation about future consumer desktops to sap the momentum its recovered.

Considering that the company has increasingly looked to introduce new products at special media events outside its normal trade show cycle, I find it entirely plausible that Apple could save an announcement of this magnitude for October - after the back-to-school dust has settled but in plenty of time for the holiday shopping season.

Third, Jobs kibosh on hardware announcements at Apple Expo leaves open the possibility that Apple will still introduce new systems at that weeks other big Mac show: Seybold Seminars/San Francisco, where Jobs perennial keynote second fiddle - Apple Vice President of Product Marketing Phil Schiller - will do the opening honors, aided and abetted by a simulcast of his boss beamed in from Paris.

The Seybold audience of pro publishers certainly isnt ideal for an iMac Mach 2 intro, but the show has certainly served as the launchpad for professional-strength desktop systems, most notably the original Power Mac G4. Its entirely conceivable, then, that Apple could introduce some buff new server hardware or top-of-the-line multiprocessor Macs at a show thats more friendly to American biorhythms than the French forum.

My biggest question about the Seybold scenario: Would Apples Johnny Carson really allow his faithful Ed McMahon to steal his keynote thunder right from under his enormous, televised nose?

London Calling

In a slight rhetorical and geographical tangent, Id like to wind up this weeks installment by noting the other European trade show news out of Apple: the companys planned return to the U.K. trade show circuit.

As reported by Macworld UK and other British sites, Apple will appear at MacExpo 2001 at Islingtons Business Design Centre from Nov. 22-24.

"MacExpo provides the right audience at the right time for us," Apple UK spokesman David Millar told Macworld. "Its a chance to meet our audience, meet the prosumer market, and its at a good time of year."

It also represents a significant thaw in Cupertinos attitude toward the British Mac market, which it snubbed repeatedly during 1999 and 2000 when it rescheduled, then canceled a series of Mac shows, earning the ire of UK developers and users alike.

While Apple is still clearly focusing its European firepower on Apple Expo, its heartening to note that the company is prepared to temper its ironclad policy on localized trade shows as well as its tradition of pre-show secrecy.

Mac veteran Matthew Rothenberg is vendor analyst for Ziff Davis Medias forthcoming Baseline magazine.