After covering the keynotes from both the CES and MacWorld events, I'm wondering if we are really seeing the death of the trade show and a sad future for tech. It is clear that, at least for now, Steve Jobs, the best pitch man in the business, is no longer truly the face of Apple, and Bill Gates, who had once been the biggest draw for CES, is unlikely to be replaced. Both men leave holes in their organizations that were highlighted in the respective keynotes. Jobs may still come back, Gates won't.
MacWorld keynotes, in the years when Jobs wasn't with the company, weren't very exciting. I recall one, shortly before his return, that was so painful it likely would have violated the Geneva Convention if used as an interrogation tool. Keynotes are supposed to be about vision and the future. Apple (and this is hardly unique) uses these opportunities to pitch current products. What makes Jobs unique is that he does this in a way that gets standing ovations and creates an event that the folks who attend probably will remember fondly their entire lives. He rarely misses, even when he doesn't have that much to talk about.
At the latest, and likely the last, MacWorld, the biggest applause came when Tony Bennett sang. Tony Bennett is a true performer and I think this showcased that Apple truly needs people on stage who can capture the imagination of an audience and leave them with an impression that using an Apple product goes beyond features into a lifestyle choice they become convinced they want to make or reinforces their loyalty to the platform.
They didn't have much to talk about -- some iMovie and iPhoto improvements, moving to DRM-free music (which is actually pretty big), and a new expensive notebook in a market that was buying inexpensive netbooks (someone missed a meeting).
If I were to rank this latest effort, I'd give it a 7 out of 10, given the generally unexciting content, and realizing that most CEO keynotes I see I'd rank closer to 4 or 5. But I believe that to continue to be successful, Apple needs 10s and Steve Jobs gave them 10s. It needs to find someone else who can give 10s or Apple is likely to go back to the days when Steve Jobs wasn't there and we wondered if it was going to be much longer. Being an Apple executive and getting outshined by Tony Bennett has to be embarrassing at a MacWorld, and he wouldn't have outshined Steve Jobs.
If they'd teleconferenced in Steve Jobs, even for just a moment, or used the actor who plays the Mac guy in the commercials as proxy for him, I think they would have had at least one standing ovation or at least generated more excitement than they got.
CES and Microsoft
Steve Ballmer gave the traditional Bill Gates keynote at CES and, to be clear, Bill Gates was never the presenter that Steve Jobs is. But he was Bill Gates and he was actually rather interesting to listen to. Microsoft's high point for platforms came in 1995 when it got Apple-like lines for the launch of Windows 95. Folks were excited all that year in anticipation of that product. Windows 7 is not starting out like Windows 95.
There were four moments of strong applause at the Microsoft event. The first was when Ballmer mentioned Bill Gates' work in Africa. The second was at the end of a performance by the incredibly appropriate band Tripod, the third when a young girl (I'm guessing 12 years old) demonstrated that she could use a new Xbox gaming tool to out -rogram anyone in the audience, and finally during a presentation by Microsoft labs showing, among other things, a color flexible ePaper display (more advanced than that used in the Kindle). The 12-year-old had more stage presence than any of the Microsoft folks. Like at the Mac event, there were a number of moments with polite applause, but the audience didn't seem to connect with the Windows 7 features being showcased strongly, and didn't even seem to get that excited about the new Halo Xbox games (which surprised me, given the success of Halo). While no one booed (that I could hear, the audience spilled over into a number of huge rooms), no one seemed to get very excited either.
I was reminded of the song, "Dance 10 Looks 3," in the musical A Chorus Line, which is more Broadway than Vegas but to point. The song talks about the lack of success for a dancer who is amazingly competent but relatively unattractive and can't get a job and so is contemplating cosmetic surgery. The keynote was technically a keynote and competently executed, but it needed to be exciting and it wasn't. And, I think, in a recessionary market, you really need to generate excitement.
Early the next morning, Microsoft Labs announced a product that could automatically match music to lyrics, which could have been huge at the keynote in a world where Guitar Hero and Rock Band rule. And if they had demonstrated two features in Windows 7, the improvements in the much-hated User Access Control and the blinding speed at which the product booted (particularly on a system with an SSD drive), they likely would have gotten a standing ovation or certainly generated more excitement. One blogger pointed out that if Steve Ballmer had simply been Steve Ballmer, it would have been a vastly better event and being outshined by a 12-year-old girl, well, that is just embarrassing. But, she probably could have outshined most CEOs, and that is also kind of sad.
Microsoft actually had a ton more great content than Apple did; it just didn't seem to know how to present it in a way that engaged and excited the audience. You'd think someone in Vegas could help with that.
If there was ever a year when we needed magic, 2009 is it. We are awash with depressing news of layoffs, and a lot of folks we all know are losing their jobs and homes. It's tough to get excited about much of anything, and concerns about our own ability to survive these times are high. It is at times like this that those little moments with Steve Jobs, and even Bill Gates, could bring a little excitement, vision and even fun.
I think the executives of both firms need to step back and think for a moment about whether they want their firms to be remembered for the greatness they once had, or appreciated for the greatness they do have. This is the year that the customers, employees, and investors of both companies needed their executives to step up to the plate and swing for the fences. 2009 will pass and there is a better future coming. We desperately need people who can help us see through the pain to that future.