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Macworld: Once again, from the top

Macworld, once a showcase event for Apple's successes, has become a gathering place for a virtual deathwatch on the troubled company.

Macworld used to be a showcase event for Apple Computer (AAPL), a sort of high-tech cotillion featuring the hottest technologies replete with the glitz and glamour befitting the industry's riches. Now, it has become a gathering place for a virtual deathwatch on a company that once defined the elan of Silicon Valley.

Although its long-term prospects for survival remain unclear, today's show in Boston added some unusual new twists to its life story. Although the question of who will ultimately become its chief executive remain unanswered, a $150 million investment from one-time arch rival Microsoft and the appointment of a new board that includes Larry Ellison of Oracle is sure to keep Apple a lively topic in the worlds of high tech and high finance.

Macworld saga continues The question that now burns in Boston is: What's next?

Rather than focusing primarily on Apple's latest, greatest computers, Macworld Boston was a continuation of San Francisco's show in January, where major questions of leadership arose after the stunning purchase of Next Software brought cofounder Steve Jobs back into Apple's fold. Although outgoing CEO Gil Amelio had touted that move at the time, the return of prodigal son Jobs ultimately proved to be his undoing.

Although chief financial officer Fred Anderson was named to care for daily operations until a new CEO is found, with help from Apple's executive management team, those inside the company and out say Jobs is the one who is really running the show, despite his job description as a "consultant." Today's keynote speech by Jobs did nothing to counter that perception.

For months, talk of Jobs being named the new Apple chairman has filled the halls of Apple's compound in Cupertino, California, but rumors intensified last week after the company announced that he will be the keynote speaker at Macworld. As it turns out, Jobs turned down an offer by Apple to lead its board, though he will still advise the company.

Ever-skittish Wall Street has stayed remarkably calm through all this, even optimistic. Investors may be holding out hope for the prospect of a buyout, and that possibility will surely be the talk of Macworld.

Cautious optimism on finances

But others on the floor of the trade show will be concerned with more ground-level issues. For example, the companies that make Macintosh clones, which have licensed Apple's operating system for their boxes, have some pressing questions about the future of their business agreements.

While clone makers have helped grow the market share for the Mac OS, Apple's piece of that pie is shrinking. And that has raised concerns at Apple, which seems to have developed an us-vs.-them Cloners, Apple haggle over OS mentality in marketing and licensing.

Some cloners, such as Umax and Power Computing, have expressed dismay at some of the treatment they have received from Apple while hammering out new licensing agreements. These companies are reporting that efforts to strike a new licensing agreement for the Macintosh OS 8 have come to a virtual standstill since the announcement of Amelio's resignation, giving them the impression Motorola debuts clones with CHRP OS that Apple is still trying to decide how it wants to deal with them.

As such concerns loom, Jobs faces a formidable challenge in winning over the crowd in Boston when he delivers the Macworld keynote. Amelio encountered a similar situation when he stepped to the podium in San Francisco and was given lukewarm reviews for lacking the clear corporate direction that thousands had come to hear.

But Apple's supporters are hoping for much more from Jobs and his reputation as a visionary. A riveting speech from someone viewed as the new savior could lay out an exciting future for the company and reenergize the developer community, as well as the consuming public.

In essence, Apple is in desperate need of the big "C"--charisma.

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