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Apple rethinks trade show circuit

This summer, for the first time since Steve Jobs returned to Apple Computer Inc., the chief executive will not deliver a keynote at the Macworld New York industry show.

In fact, not only will the annual July trade show lack Jobs, it won't even have the same name. IDG World Expo, which organizes the event, has rechristened it "Create," while recalibrating the show to appeal specifically to such creative professionals as Web page designers and graphic artists.

Apple still will have a booth at the show, but the number of companies exhibiting will drop to about 150 this year, from 245 last year. The emphasis will shift to expert speakers and educational seminars.

As distressing as this news may come to frequent attendees of the July Macworld show, particularly those who aren't creative professionals, a close look at Apple's recent relationship with the trade shows indicates the change should come as no surprise.

When IDG said in October that it planned to move the New York show back to Boston, where it originated in 1984, Apple said it would not participate because it "disagreed" with the move.

A public spat followed, and word trickled out that Apple preferred New York because of the large number of creative professionals there, as well as because of the city's role as a global media center.

Despite months of negotiations with IDG, Apple refused to relent on the Boston decision. The company also delayed committing to this year's New York show, and in the end declined to send Jobs. Apple's behavior no doubt played a part in IDG's decision to revamp the East Coast show, held at the Jacob K. Javits Convention Center.

Apple also caused, intentionally or not, the collapse of IDG's Macworld Tokyo show, usually held each March.

After the company told IDG it would not even have a booth there, much less send Jobs for a keynote, other major exhibitors -- Adobe, Macromedia and Microsoft Corp. among them -- pulled out, too. IDG canceled the show in December.

Apple did participate, however, in the fourth major Mac show, the annual Apple Expo Paris, last September. Apple, not IDG, produces that show, however, which doesn't carry any great expectations of major product announcements.

Since the brouhaha with IDG last year, some observers have suggested that Apple has been re-evaluating its participation in Macworlds -- particularly the East Coast installment -- because Jobs has tired of the pressure of coming up with enough snazzy new products to sufficiently enthrall U.S. Mac fans twice a year.

"Apple wants to get out of having that twice-yearly anchor for doing product announcements that it has gotten locked into," said Michael Gartenberg, a research director with Jupiter Research Inc. of Darien, Conn.

Gartenberg said Apple has "outgrown the dedicated conference" for Mac users and needs to broaden its appeal by increasing its participation in other general PC and technology trade shows.

"The people who buy will continue to do so," Gartenberg said. "They need to go beyond the Mac faithful."

Tim Bajarin, president of Creative Strategies Inc., a research firm based in Campbell, Calif., said he thinks Jobs "has been shifting his thinking" regarding the kinds of major product announcements typical of Macworld shows.

Bajarin noted that the announcements at the last few New York shows have been more mundane -- upgrades to existing models, for instance, as opposed to the dramatically new flat-screen iMac unveiled at the San Francisco show in 2002 or the 17-inch PowerBook G4 introduced this year.

In other words, Apple gradually has made the January show the de facto venue for its major new-product announcements. If, as it appears, Apple would rather not make major announcements in July, a Jobs keynote, then, serves no purpose.

Tying major product announcements to the biannual Macworld schedule also has created a host of marketing headaches over the years.

For example, knowledgeable Mac users historically have timed their buying around the major shows. This behavior slows sales in the weeks before a show and often is followed by heavy demand for freshly announced products after the show. The slow-moving older models and backlogs of unfilled orders for the newer ones wreak havoc with Apple's ability to manage inventory.

Another problem with making major announcements on a fixed schedule is that the products often aren't ready to ship. In those cases, products may be rushed out the door before they're ready -- meaning they have serious bugs -- or they won't be available for weeks after the announcement.

The 17-inch PowerBook G4 announced in Jobs' Jan. 7 keynote, for instance, didn't start shipping until two weeks ago.

Nevertheless, Apple has made progress in recent years in breaking its habit of saving major announcements for the two U.S. shows.

For example, the introductions of both the eMac -- April 2002 -- and the revamped iBook -- May 2001 -- were timed to coincide with the period when educators do most of their buying. Apple introduced its popular iPod MP3 player in October 2001, well-timed for the holiday buying season.

Indeed, Apple has been criticized over the years for announcing major products in January -- after the holiday season.

But Bajarin said he thinks January announcements suit Apple. "They build up the market over the course of the year," he said.

One aspect of the shows Apple would be loathe to lose is the vast amount of free publicity the Jobs keynotes invariably generate. Besides the expected coverage by Mac magazines and Web sites, the presentations receive extensive coverage from mainstream media, particularly newspapers.

That's one reason why Apple probably will stick with a splashy Jobs keynote at the San Francisco show, but Gartenberg said Apple could use other trade shows as vehicles for announcing new products the rest of the year.

"At any trade show Apple decides to attend," Gartenberg said, "if they want a keynote for Steve, they'll get one. He can have his pick of keynotes."

Apple's growing national chain of retail stores in high-visibility shopping malls have supplanted yet another traditional Macworld function: a means for the Mac community to see Apple's new wares up close.

In his January keynote Jobs said that the 1.4 million people who visited the 51 Apple Stores -- including the outlet in Towson -- in December was "equivalent to 20 Macworlds."

Bajarin said Apple actually has been surprised at how many people the stores have reached, and "the stores are a more cost-effective way to promote Apple aggressively" than the trade shows.

Scaling back its presence at the Mac shows would save the money spent on transporting staff and equipment to venues far from Apple headquarters in Cupertino, Calif.

Although it may be in Apple's best interest to de-emphasize the July show, Mac users on the East Coast face the end of a tradition. About 58,000 attended last year's Macworld New York, down from 64,000 in 2001. Macworld San Francisco usually draws the larger crowds, with the January show pulling about 90,000.

"Personally, I am very disappointed there will be no keynote and am having second thoughts about going," said Dave Ottalini, vice president of publicity for the Washington Apple Pi Mac users group.

The Washington group usually sends several busloads of Mac users to New York.

However, the change could spawn an increase in regional events sponsored by Mac user groups on the East Coast, which would be more accessible to a larger number of people.

Ottalini said his group already is contemplating working with other Mac user groups in the region, including the Maryland Apple Corps, to create a such an event in the Baltimore-Washington area.

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