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Macworld leads tech out of the desert

There may not be anything as exciting as the iPhone at next week's Macworld, but Apple should once again own the January trade show season.

Apple has the third week of January all to itself this year, and although it probably won't top last year's Macworld, the company will likely make everyone forget about the Consumer Electronics Show.

Trade shows are a necessary evil in the tech industry. Everyone claims to hate them, but the opportunity to have all the major players in the same town at the same time is too much of a draw. And usually, the parties are decent, leading more than 140,000 business types to CES in Las Vegas this week for a chance to make deals and network inside crowded booths and over the craps tables.

Contrast that with Macworld, scheduled for next week at the Moscone Center in San Francisco. About 40,000 people are expected to attend the 23rd such gathering, according to conference presenter IDG World Expo. And, like last year, Tuesday's Macworld announcements will probably overshadow anything announced in the Nevada desert.

Hundreds of ordinary people will start lining up for Macworld on Monday night for a chance to sit 300 feet away from their hero. They'll be swapping stories and talking tech all throughout the chilly night with their fellow line-standers. They're anticipating the Stevenote, the two hours of the year when the tech world stands still, waiting for Apple CEO Steve Jobs to introduce the company's latest products.

Apple CEO Steve Jobs unveils the iPhone at last year's Macworld. Declan McCullagh/CNET

The buzz this year doesn't seem to be approaching the heights reached last year, when Jobs unveiled the iPhone. The best bets this time around appear to be new slim notebooks and a movie rental service with several of the world's largest studios joining forces with Apple.

Apple's stock, which usually follows a "buy on the rumor, sell on the news" pattern prior to Macworld, is actually down quite a bit from last week. Granted, it was a bad week for just about everyone, but it's still a little surprising that Apple's performance was below the market's in the week leading up to Macworld. With a recession looming in the minds of many economists, perhaps some investors are wondering whether people forced to choose between a growing mortgage payment, filling up the tank, or buying a new Mac might opt to keep the roof over their head and the car moving.

However, it's also pretty hard to introduce products every year that will generate buzz on the order of the iPhone. New notebooks seem like a given, coming off the introduction of new mobile processors from Intel and the two-year gap between next week and the last significant overhaul of the MacBook design template.

Much of the speculation has centered on an ultraportable notebook, a 3-pound or so laptop currently missing from Apple's slate of Macs. But it's also likely that the company will take the occasion to update the regular notebooks in its arsenal.

The more significant news, should it come to pass, would be the announcement of a movie rental service through iTunes. Reports have been flying out of Hollywood that Fox, Warner Bros., Paramount, Lions Gate, and, of course, Disney will have rental agreements to announce with Apple.

Apple's attempts to replicate the success of the music portion of the iTunes store in the video market haven't exactly taken off, especially when it comes to movies. While people may indeed want to own their music, they seem less interested in having to buy movies just to check them out. Details of exactly how Apple's rental service would work are still sketchy, but for a few dollars, you'd likely download a file that would last a predetermined amount of time (24 hours is the popular bet) and then disappear from your hard drive.

Given how many people are using iTunes, this could be one of the first Internet-download services to break through to average consumers. The concept has been around for a while through companies like Wal-Mart and Movielink, but no one has managed to turn the idea into a hit. Apple has a fighting chance to pull that off, and if it does, it'll also dramatically expand the usefulness of Apple TV.

There's also likely to be the fabled "one more thing." A lack of preshow buzz might mean Apple has been ratcheting down expectations for this year, but it might also mean it's done a better job keeping its secrets secret. After all, there's no way Jobs can talk about notebooks and movies for the scheduled 90 minutes, and some feel that this week's introduction of the Mac Pro and Xserve was done to free up some time in his keynote for something else.

Contrast that with the "news" coming out of Las Vegas. Despite hours of keynote speeches from some of the titans of the American technology industry, there didn't seem to be anything radically new or different this year that changed the way the industry looks at a certain segment or captured the attention of the average person. The iPhone managed to do both of those things last year at Macworld.

For the most part, people leave Las Vegas drained from the experience of the daily trek across the equivalent of a small town, listening to the same stump speeches from the same industry visionaries who want you to imagine that all of the things they said would happen last year (and the year before that, and the year before that) actually did happen.

Jobs has managed to avoid falling into that malaise so far. Last year, he introduced the iPhone. That seems to have worked out fairly well. The year before that, he introduced the first Intel-based Macs. People have clearly responded to those as well.

Every time he does this, however, the expectations grow. Apple has done a masterful job with Macworld the last several years, but it will become more and more difficult to outdo itself every year.

But until the Intels, Microsofts, Yahoos, and Comcasts of the tech industry start doing the same thing at CES--introducing products that captivate ordinary people--that show will always be more about schmoozing and gambling. And Apple will continue to own January.