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Macworld surprise comes three weeks early: No Steve Jobs keynote

This January's Macworld may be the last. And not only that: we may have seen the last of Apple CEO Steve Jobs' legendary keynotes.

Yesterday Apple announced that Jobs would not deliver his customary keynote at this year's Macworld show in San Francisco, delegating the task instead to Senior Vice President of Worldwide Product Marketing Phil Schiller.

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Furthermore, Apple said the company has no plans to participate in the 2010 Macworld.

IDG World Expo, which organizes a number of trade shows in addition to Macworld, put on a brave face with talk about the hundreds of other exhibitors scheduled to participate in the event. But a Macworld show without the draw of a Steve Jobs keynote loses much of its allure.

The double-barreled announcement sent the Mac Web, normally preoccupied at this time of year with rumors of potential Macworld surprises, into a tailspin.

Apple explains in its press release that "trade shows have become a very minor part of how Apple reaches its customers." The release cites the success of Apple's retail stores and Web site in reaching millions of customers every week (Macworld attracts 40,000 to 50,000 attendees over its five-day run.)

The release also notes that Apple has scaled back on other trade shows in recent years, such as NAB, Macworld New York, Macworld Tokyo and Apple Expo in Paris.

The 2003 Tokyo show was cancelled shortly after Apple announced it had pulled out; the New York show lingered for two weak years before succumbing.

So what does it all mean?

The demise of the Macworld show itself will matter only to the die-hard Macolytes who circled the dates on their calendars every year. They will miss the thrill of the annual Stevenote as well as the buzz and speculation leading up to it.

But Apple doesn't need the expense and hassle of gearing up for a trade show in January, and in particular of having cool new products to announce right after the holiday shopping season has ended and many consumers are broke.

Apart from the generous media coverage (which translated to massive amounts of free advertising), Apple got little benefit from Macworld. Besides, Apple has shown that almost any time it announces a major product -- like the new MacBooks in October -- it can get the same kind of free publicity without the inconvenience of a huge trade show.

The bigger issue to emerge from yesterday's announcements concerns Steve Jobs. Why would he not deliver one final keynote?

Unfortunately, the decision to sub Phil Schiller for Steve for the final Macworld keynote immediately reignited speculation over Jobs' health, with some wondering if he's too ill to give a public presentation. Those who know aren't telling, but uncertainty over Jobs health always creates an unwelcome distraction for Apple.

An alternative theory -- and one I believe has merit -- theorizes that Apple simply doesn't have any blockbuster announcements in store for the Macworld show. Jobs would not want to deliver a keynote that lacked sizzle.

The new iPods came out in September; new MacBooks arrived in October. The iPhone seems destined for annual updates in June. Unless Apple has a hot new iMac or stunning Apple TV revision up its sleeve, the prospects for a showstopper don't look good. And no, I don't see Apple producing a "netbook" Mac for at least six months -- if ever.

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But even if that's true, we're faced with the possibility that not only has Jobs given his last Macworld keynote – he may have given up such public presentations altogether.

Even at the MacBook event, Jobs acted more as master of ceremonies than chief presenter. Whether for health reasons or a desire to devote more time to his personal life, it appears Jobs has turned over more public duties to his deputies in the past year.

It's about time.

We could be witnessing the early phases of a gradual transfer of power and responsibility within Apple from Jobs to his team of top execs – Schiller, Chief Operating Officer Tim Cook and Senior Vice President for Industrial Design Jonathan Ive, among others.

If so, it's a smart strategy. The folks in Cupertino need to wean the world away from the perception that Steve Jobs is the only guy that matters at Apple Inc. If executed correctly, Jobs' role will diminish gradually, similar to how Bill Gates slowly bowed out of Microsoft.

As much as his vision and showmanship has meant to the company, Apple can't continue to rely so heavily on Jobs' cult of personality. It served its purpose; now it's time to move on.

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