PAUL BOUTIN — Apple fans are already circling the San Francisco site where Steve Jobs will kick off Macworld with one of his legendary live performances Tuesday morning. Part of the appeal is His Steveness' awesome stage presence, which rivals Van Halen circa 1979. But there's another component to a Jobs show: Gadgets. Surprise new Apple gadgets. In the past, he's hauled out reshaped Macs and impossibly small iPods. This time, Steve's expected to reach into his jeans and pull out the long-rumored iPod phone. Do you really think he'll do what you expect? For the lowdown on Tuesday's surprise, and the story of how Microsoft failed to steal Steve's groove, read on.
There's no business like show business, especially for Steve Jobs. While other execs don suits and read from slides, or hire superstars to mask their own dullness, Jobs takes the stage like a leopard in jeans and black turtleneck. He strides the full stage front to back, side to side. He never seems to be reading his lines, yet rarely fumbles a word. Jobs invites Hollywood celebs onstage as his pals, and makes clear other CEOs are mere understudies. His energy and fervor are contagious: In an hour, he'll have you shuffling mortgage payments to buy the new Mac. If you've never caught his act, it's worth the campout.
What's Steve going to show this time? The 100-to-1 rumor is that Apple finally has a phone ready to go. Don't call it an iPhone — it's more likely an iPod-branded phone. Digg founder Kevin Rose, who's been right with the rumors before, says "it's small as shit" and has two separate batteries — one for playback, one for phone calls.
Apple's magic-show events are the exact opposite of the approach Microsoft used to market its iPod-fighting Zune media player and OS X-alike Vista operating system. Instead of a Big Bang unveiling, Redmond marketers spent months ahead of time planting preview articles, reaching out to influencers, flying bloggers to meet Bill Gates and giving them pricey "review units" — treatment once reserved for The Wall Street Journal.
In theory it was Cluetrain marketing, but in practice the transparent campaign gave would-be customers months to build expectations their Zunes couldn't meet upon arrival. By the time the product was available, buyers' urge to splurge had evaporated. After seeing Jobs pull a Nano from his pocket in 2005 — minutes after Motorola and Cingular execs had shown their awkward ROKR phone — it's hard to imagine why Microsoft didn't likewise spring Zune on an unsuspecting world. If wowed consumers had been able to snag one the same day, they might've given it a chance.
To be fair, Microsoft needs to get partners mobilized months before the product ships, which makes it hard to keep a secret. Apple's self-contained business model only needs you to show up and buy. A surprise launch is not only possible, it's a better sell capped with Steve's exhilarating kicker: "And it's available ... TODAY."
The best Apple launches shock even insiders with gadgets that defy expectations. The original iMac. The iPod. The 17" aluminum laptop. The flat-panel iMac. The Nano. But Jobs' last two shows were letdowns. Intel Macs ... finally. An iTunes player for your TV ... next year. Steve's rock-star glow was missing, as if he wasn't that stoked about what he had to show. It was as if he had something much bigger that wasn't ready.
Until now. The iPhone rumor is almost too ubiquitous, too unchallenged. Apple PR elves calling tech reporters sound higher-pitched, more urgent than usual. Check out the He-Is-Risen imagery splashed across Apple's home page this week. Get the message? Tuesday isn't Christmas, it's Easter. Fifteen months ago, Apple packed reporters into a room to show them an iTunes phone — and launched the Nano instead. After two years of iPhone hype, it'll be lame next week if Steve only whips out what everyone expects. More likely, he's got "One more thing..."