No Jobs keynote at Macworld '09

Move sparks renewed questions about CEO Steve Jobs' health

In a move sparking renewed questions about CEO Steve Jobs' health, Apple says the keynote speech at next month's Macworld Conference & Expo will be delivered by Philip Schiller, the company's senior product marketing executive.

Apple also announced that it will no longer exhibit at the San Francisco event, which runs January 5-9, after next month's show.

"I'm surprised," said Ezra Gottheil, an analyst with Technology Business Research, of the announcement that Schiller would handle the keynote, something Jobs has become famous for giving.

"But it's part of the continuity that they attempted to establish when they rolled out the MacBooks, when Jobs didn't do a solo."

During the October MacBook event, Jobs shared the stage with other senior executives, including Tim Cook, the company's chief operating officer. Over the years, Jobs has used his time on stage to unveil numerous new products, including the company's MacBook Air laptop earlier this year, and the first iPhone in January 2007.

"Clearly, Apple wants to showcase their top management, but this is an interesting time to do it, when the stock is under pressure," Gottheil said. "But I think they want to communicate that the company is a good deal more than Jobs, and that its ongoing health and prosperity is not connected to him."

Although Apple's shares were up 68 cents, or 0.7%, Tuesday to close at US$95.43, they dropped $2.48, or 2.6%, to $93 in early after-hour trading.

Jobs' health has been a matter of concern for some Wall Street analysts, and a topic of discussion among Apple users and investors for months. The speculation started in June, when Jobs appeared gaunt at the company's Worldwide Developers Conference, and was fueled by talk that he might again be seriously ill. In 2004, Jobs announced that he had had surgery to remove a cancerous tumor in his pancreas.

Last July, Jobs told The New York Times that he was cancer-free, and joked about the concerns during the MacBook roll-out. Between the two, however, a false report that Jobs had suffered a massive heart attack shoved Apple's stock down by 11% in early October, demonstrating Wall Street's worries about Jobs' and how his absence might impact the company.

Gottheil said he anticipated that Jobs would make some kind of appearance at Macworld, if only to calm any nervous investors. "He looked fine [in October]," said Gottheil. "and I can't imagine him retiring." Schiller's keynote address will be the last at Macworld by Apple, the company said in a statement.

Apple is "reaching more people in more ways than ever before, so like many companies, trade shows have become a very minor part of how Apple reaches its customers," the company said, then pointed to traffic in its retail stores — as well as visits to its website — as other ways in which it can reach customers. "Apple has been steadily scaling back on trade shows in recent years, including NAB, Macworld New York, Macworld Tokyo and Apple Expo in Paris," the company added.

It was not immediately clear what effect Apple's decision would have on the future of Macworld. A similar move by the company several years ago effectively ended an east coast version of the expo that used to be held in Boston.

Macworld has been held annually in San Francisco since 1985, and Apple has exhibited each year at the trade show. Next year's show comes just ahead of the 25th anniversary of the introduction of the first Mac in 1984.

Apple is not the only one lowering its Macworld profile. Adobe Systems said earlier this month that it had decided not to exhibit at the Expo, although it will still have a presence at the event.

"It makes sense for Apple to reduce its association with the Expo," said Gottheil. "Saves some money, but really, the show is only about the Mac. That's just one of their products. This gives them more control over when they present. Or maybe they're tired of coming with a show-stopper every year."

IDG World Expo, an exhibition management firm that puts on the show, is a part of International Data Group (IDG) — the parent company of Computerworld . IDG World Expo officials did not return a phone call Tuesday seeking comment about Apple's announcement.

"I don't question that [Jobs' absence from the keynote] will not cause some concern," said Gottheil, again referring to worries over the CEO's health. "But the company has more balls in the air than any time in its history. And it's critical to demonstrate to the market that the company can do more than one thing at a time.

"And that requires that Jobs not be doing everything," he said.

Schiller's keynote is scheduled to start at 9am PST on January 6.

Computerworld blogger Seth Weintraub, who writes about issues related to Apple, weighs in on the announcement.

Ken Mingis contributed to this report.

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