Lowered Expectations At Expo

There are moments when I don't envy Steve Jobs.

There are moments when I dont envy Steve Jobs.

Sure, Apple Computers CEO and co-founder is richer than me, more famous than me, and thinner than me.

Whether or not you buy into the personality cult that has grown up around Jobs over the past quarter-century, its hard to ignore the sheer magnetism that has made the man high-techs most reliable star performer, a figure whose every move attracts the attention of the media, acolytes and detractors alike.

Considering I cant even officiate at a Passover seder without a sharp pang of stagefright, its hard for me to imagine the kind of metabolism that thrives on making big announcements before huge audiences, as Jobs has regularly done with his semiannual Macworld Expo keynote speeches ever since reclaiming the reins at Apple in 1997.

And when--as in the case of this weeks event in New York - the announcements are much less than dramatic than the venue, the pressure on Jobs and the rest of Apple must be incredible.

Jobs spent enough of his early days at Apple shoeless that we can definitely ascertain that his feet arent made of clay. Itd be hard to tell, however, judging from comments Ive heard from Mac enthusiasts disappointed by the modest advances unveiled during his two-hour presentation Wednesday morning. One showgoer even suggested that Jobs was channeling the spirit of Gil Amelio, the former Apple CEO whose rambling Macworld Expo keynote in January 1997 still draws sniggers from Mac vets and signaled the twilight of his short tenure.

The comparison really isnt fair, of course: Jobs provided plenty of substance during his lengthy appearance. As Yours Truly predicted in last weeks installment, Apple bumped up the speeds and features of both its professional and consumer desktop systems and announced new advances in its brick-and-mortar retail strategy.

On the software front, the company took the wraps off the long-rumored Puma upgrade to Mac OS X, which will boost performance, hone the interface and (finally) add DVD playback to the mix; it also introduced Version 2.0 of iDVD, its very slick consumer DVD-authoring package. As expected, Jobs identified the next round of Apple brick-and-mortar retail outlets as the company pursues its goal of 25 stores nationwide in 2001, and he called up an illustrious assortment of developers to demonstrate their contributions to the growing roster of Mac OS X-native applications.

And all of this came the day after Apple announced that it turned a $61 million profit and cut inventory in the third fiscal quarter, despite the woeful economic conditions besetting the PC industry as a whole.

From any other company, this savory gazpacho of tasty morsels would be more than enough. So why is it less than satisfying for the Mac audience?

Because of its steadfast adherence to Jobs 25-year-old vision of Apple as a vertically integrated provider of total platform solutions, the onus is squarely on the company to push the envelope simultaneously on the hardware and software fronts. And because of Jobs showmanship and Apples recent, happy habit of delivering very sexy, attention-getting products, the Mac maker is essentially chained to a product cycle that dictates a fireworks display every six months at the slowest.

While the Power Mac G4 and iMac are now faster and more flexible than they were last week, users are impatient to see Apple move to the Next Big Thing. The former system still hasnt passed the magic 1-gigahertz barrier, which is an important psychological step even if you subscribe to Apples argument that clock speed isnt everything.

Meanwhile, the iMacs 3-year-old design is indisputably beginning to show its age. In particular, Apples emphasis on the superiority of flat-panel technology makes it all the more clear that the iMac is the only Mac system still built around the old-school CRT.

The pricing of the new models is also hugely problematic: The price of an entry-level iMac just rose $200, to $999. Considering the inroads Dell Computer and other manufacturers have made in offering compact consumer desktops at rock-bottom prices, this is hardly a sign that Apple itself has the fire in its belly when it comes to this summers stock of iMacs.

And while I have little patience for those media organs who actually believe that new iMac color schemes are big news in themselves, I cant help but be struck by the fact that Apple reverted to last years colors for this years iMacs. The line, which brought Apple back from the brink and re-established Jobs credibility as a corporate leader, is badly in need of a new shot of fuel, and this weeks announcements provide little more than fumes in that department.

Now the good news: Apple is a company that still knows how to innovate - and how to sell those innovations to a sizeable and enthusiastic audience. Just consider the striking successes its scored in the past six months on the laptop side of the equation: Both the Titanium PowerBook G4 and consumer iBook have sold like hotcakes and have garnered cross-platform raves. (When asked a Mac-dealer friend of mine what he thought of the desktop hardware at this weeks keynote appearance, he responded, "I think Im going to be selling a lot of laptops.")

Those of us who care deeply about the Mac and believe in its future wont be dissuaded by one less-than-transcendent keynote. At the same time, the fact that we arent satisfied by mere evolutionary progress should give Apple extra impetus to continue fighting back for the Mac.

Mac veteran Matthew Rothenberg is managing editor of Ziff Davis Internet.