When Gil Amelio took to the stage at Mac World in San Francisco this week, it wasn?t so much in the role of Apple chairman than as warm-up man for the second coming of Steve Jobs, which may be why he singularly failed to deliver the goods to an expectant industry.
With Apple's stock price on a downward spiral and continuing uncertainty about its long term operating systems strategy, what was needed from Amelio was a clear explanation of how the Apple/Next merger would work in practice. Why should anyone buy Apple products now? Why should anyone develop for Apple platforms now?
But what was on offer from Amelio was a rambling, often incoherent keynote address, that neglected crucial strategic details in favour of pointless walk-on appearances from show business celebrities. Operating system specifics were out and Mohammed Ali was in, although no-one in the audience could quite work out why.
It was Jobs whom the audience wanted to see. Every time his name was mentioned or his photograph was flashed up on screen, delegates burst into applause and cheers and when he finally appeared, he won a standing ovation from the Mac faithful.
But he was not to appear for quite some time. Amelio?s keynote was scheduled to last for 90 minutes, but such was its out-of-focus nature that it was almost two and a half hours before Jobs could take centre stage. Before then, there was a lot of preamble to get through.
'Independence Day', the movie in which a Powerbook saves the world, was the running theme of Amelio?s presentation. This was used as an excuse to wheel out Jeff Goldblum, one of the film?s stars, who suggested that his role in 'Jurassic Park' as an expert on chaos theory made him an ideal candidate to speak about Apple.
Amelio took the film analogy further. The situation in which Apple finds itself today is akin to that faced by the human race in the film. "'Independence Day' has three acts," he told the 4,000-strong Mac World audience. "In the first, we?re all under attack. In act two, the good guys regroup. Finally, when things look bleakest, there comes the counter-attack."
With the Apple share price plummeting on the news the day before of an expected $150 million loss for the first quarter, Amelio tried to deliver a minor counter-attack on those who predict the company is permanently financially stricken. The loss was "an air pocket", Amelio insisted, caused by poor consumer sales of the Performa range. "I don?t want this to shake your confidence," he said. "It?s not going to shake ours."
The company still has $1.7 billion in cash reserves, he added, more than enough to see it through what he dubbed "major discontinuity" in the coming months as the new operating system is developed. This is a good thing, he insisted, since industry progress is fuelled by discontinuities. In fact, he claimed, "we?re going to create our own discontinuity. Apple has pretty much patented the ability to generate discontinuities - some of them good, some not so good."
Amelio then introduced a succession of industry luminaries to affirm their commitment to Apple in these troubled times. First up was Jim Barksdale, chairman of Netscape and the self-proclaimed owner of 10 Macintosh computers. "I?m like a pig at a ham and eggs breakfast," he told Amelio somewhat bizarrely. "I am committed."
Paul Maritz, vice president of Microsoft's software division, was next up, rising above the comments made to him off-stage by one of the other speakers that the alien spaceship trying to conquer the world in 'Independence Day' was actually a metaphor for Microsoft.
Finally, Erik Schmidt, chief technology officer of Sun Microsystems, took to the podium to declare that: "Apple gets it about the Internet." He went on to praise the company?s decision to buy Next, claiming that when he first saw Nextstep in 1990 he was "blown away" by it.
With Next introduced into the proceeedings, Amelio took time to outline some of the reasons why Apple finally plumped for paying $400 million for Next, while balking at a reported asking price of $100 million for the other hot candidate, Be.
He listed a set of criteria, which included legacy support, platform stability, standards adherence and an equal or better user experience than that offered by the Mac. When the shortlisted candidates to provide technology were evaluated against these criteria, Next was 50 per cent ahead of its nearest competitor.
At this point, Amelio finally gave the crowd what it really wanted and introduced Steve Jobs, back on stage at Mac World 20 years after the official incorporation of Apple as a company. Once the audience had calmed down, Jobs - immaculately dressed in a designer suit instead of the studiously casual look rather uncomfortably adopted by Amelio - showed his new colleague how marketing a message should really be done.
Jobs unreservedly sided with the developer community, which he implied had been sorely neglected by Apple in recent years. "We?ve got to get the spark back with the developers," he said. "Developers bring us creative insight, market knowledge and entrepeneurial energy."
He proceeded to articulate the new mission statement for Apple: to provide relevant, compelling solutions that customers can get only from Apple. He also delighted the audience by staking out a personal mission statement: shamelessly evoking memories of Apple's origins, he said he wants to see 100 new software firms started in garages on the back of the new Apple operating system.
Then suddenly he was gone. In marked contrast to Amelio?s over-long presentation, Jobs completed his turn in less than 20 minutes, throwing in a quick demonstration of some of Nextstep?s capabilities and a brief on-stage encore with fellow Apple co-founder Steve Wozniack to top things off.
"I didn?t know I was going to be following Steve Jobs," said a final third party developer brought on to run through yet another demo to close the keynote. "Join the crowd," muttered Amelio, with perhaps more than a hint of feeling.
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