Say one thing about Steve Jobs: He's the straw that stirs the drink, even if the glass is half empty. Just when everyone had assumed there wouldn't be any blockbuster news coming from Macworld--at least not the Microsoft-to-invest-in-Apple variety of last fall--Jobs delivered the stunning news of an expected $45 million profit for the current quarter.
In one act of feigned forgetfulness (he made it seem like the earnings announcement was an afterthought), Jobs made the keynote attendees overlook all else that ails Apple. He left many questions unanswered, but to the audience it didn't seem to matter. Once Jobs was done with them, they were in the "Think different" mode of mind.
He made them forget Rhapsody. He made them forget his failure to recruit a permanent CEO. He made them forget the bloodied Mac cloners limping in his wake. But most of all, Svengali Steve made them forget the Mac's plummeting market share.
Only a year ago at the same venue everyone was singing the virtues of Rhapsody, the next-generation operating system built on the Next OS. In 1998 it was treated like a poor cousin, or worse. In fact there wasn't even one mention of it anywhere--not by Jobs in his keynote, not by other executives, not by a press release.
I happened to overhear a conversation between a user and an Apple representative at the Rhapsody developers' pavilion (all ten tiny booths, most of which were Apple's). She asked the representative whether to wait for Rhapsody or upgrade to Mac OS 8.1 now. His response was that she should forget about Rhapsody. This was going to be a high-end system, mostly for back-end server applications, "sort of like NT," he told her.
"So I shouldn't worry about Rhapsody," she concluded. "Not unless you plan on using some very heavy-duty applications," came the response.
And to think Apple paid $430 million to Jobs and Next for it.
Macworld has come and gone and there is no sign of a new CEO for Apple. The initial time frame was by the end of 1997, but that deadline keeps moving out. The problem seems to be that no sane executive wants to take the post so long as Jobs is in the picture, and Jobs will not comment on what exactly his plans may be.
Of course, if Jobs is turning things around at Apple, there doesn't seem to be a pressing need for a new CEO. Still, how long can a company function with an "interim" CEO? Especially when it's one who responds to this question with a tantrum, as Jobs did in an interview with CNBC following his keynote speech.
It was also only a year ago at this same venue that a clone company literally commanded center stage as its staff ran around the show in battle fatigues. Its message was plastered all over the Moscone Center: Defend the Mac. Power Computing was winning acclaim from users for being feisty, aggressive, and nimble. And it was delivering faster, better, and cheaper Macs than Apple itself. It was creating a buzz around the Mac when things looked bleak in Cupertino.
A year later, thanks to Jobs's decision to kill the cloners, things are vastly different. For these defenders of the Mac the only thing left to defend is their own survival. Ironically, this very week the world learned that Power Computing shareholders will decide by the end of this month whether to keep the company alive.
Macworld attendees also forgot to think long and hard about Apple's market share, which continues to head south at a very fast clip. Apple sank to eighth place from fifth in the U.S. market during the third quarter, according to International Data Corporation. Worldwide, Apple went from fourth place overall, with a 5.5 percent market share, to ninth place, with a 3.3 percent share, in a year-on-year comparison. Indications are that Apple will pick up some of the clone sales, but it's clear that Apple is faced with a major problem: It has finite number of users.
None of this seemed to matter to the Mac faithful--at least not in the afterglow of Jobs's command performance at Macworld. The "Think different" campaign has had the desired effect. Mac acolytes at the show were surely thinking of Apple's glass as being half full, not half empty.
With all the problems Apple still faces, though, it might be wise for those watching the company to adopt an old IBM slogan and just "Think!"