[Right: a banner marking the 2007 launch of the iPhone, at the MacWorld show in San Francisco. Image by Joyce Pedersen, used with permission under CC:]
It’s been a nostalgic few days, what with the Guardian leaving its old home, and me leaving the Guardian at the end of the week. Adding to the sense of change is the news Steve Jobs isn’t going to be doing his traditional keynote speech at San Francisco MacWorld Expo in January. Indeed, Apple says this will be the last time it attends the show. It’s the end of something; those keynotes were among the more entertaining episodes of my early career at the Guardian.
During my years on the paper I saw several of those “Stevenotes“, all of which were brilliant acts of salesmanship. They followed a pattern; wait to be let in, wait more, stare at a bare stage framed by vaguely sinister banners, listen to classic pop music, then more, then Jobs arriving – late and unheralded – on stage in jeans and black top. Then he’d do a presentation for two hours, his audience rapt. You could argue that his brilliance on stage was reinforced by an utterly adoring crowd, especially when he was speaking on his home turf in California. Once, a chap sat next to me (in the press seats) was apparently moved to heartfelt tears during Jobs’ launch of the new iPhoto application. Sobbing, he was, dabbing at his eyes with an old hankie.
But Jobs is, even under colder assessment, quite a draw, and ultimately his staying away will spell the death of the show and the quaint circus that surrounds it. That will be a bit of a shame. People will be sad that their post-holiday treat is gone, for the event is more of a festival than a trade show. Around it is, in essence, a fringe programme of launches, dinners, receptions and briefings to alternately report, book, blag and avoid, hosted by Mac vendors and Apple itself.
A personal highlight – and this perhaps is a measure of my inner geekery – was attending the Netters Dinner back in 2001. I was rather thrilled to meet its host Adam Engst, who wrote the manual to getting your Mac online in the early 1990s (even with his excellent book, it took me two weeks to work it all out) and I rather enjoyed the gathering’s computer club camaraderie. That year, Jobs took the wraps off the new titanium PowerBook, and launched a bit of software called iTunes. We all thought it cute, but around the table at Netters couldn’t really imagine digitising all our CDs.
More broadly, it was possible to gauge the health of the Mac economy through judging the size of the show, although most old-timers seemed to think things were on the slide. For the company, it really wasn’t – it was just that Apple’s morph into a consumer electronics company selling to a mass market, rather than a computer company selling into a tiny niche, meant the geek-packed show became less relevant.
With the paying attendees, frankly, mattering less to Apple, and we in the press ready to turn up to a special event at the merest hint of something shiny, even in my final year (2004) there were rumours swirling that Apple wanted its product release schedule to break free of the show dates.
And now, it appears, they’ve finally done it. The move has prompted a rush of stories that Jobs is, again, unwell, and even if there’s nothing particularly badly wrong it may be that – post cancer treatment – he’s simply not up to the intensive prep and physical ordeal of delivering the two hour SteveNote.
But Apple’s wanted out of MacWorld for years, we know. And it may also be that Jobs has realised – through December, traditionally the time when he starts pulling things together for the show – that he’s not got much to say. [Read more about Jobs' pre-keynote prep in this fascinating piece from back in 2006]
Speculation this year is that Apple won’t have a new product line to unveil, and it might just be that Jobs doesn’t fancy the usual build-up of hype, followed by post-keynote deflation among the fanboys and – new since this year – frenzied speculation about his health, gauntness and weight. (It’s tempting to think that, really, as Silicon Valley’s computer heroes enter middle and older age, the Valley ecosystem is going to have to deal with their mortality a little more maturely than it does at the moment. But that’s maybe another post.)
Like us all, Jobs and Apple is changing and moving on, and all we can do is look back and say it was fun while it lasted.
[Plus: an entertaining photogallery from the Guardian of Steve Jobs through the ages]