what was jobs thinking?

August 9, 2006

I finally had a chance to watch the WWDC keynote today, and unfortunately, I found it rather disappointing. there just wasn’t enough Steve in the “Stevenote”, prompting Wired columnist Leander Kahney to suggest that the charismatic CEO’s patented Reality Distortion Field (affectionately, RDF) may be collapsing. Sharing the stage with Apple executives Phil Schiller, Bertrand Serlet, and Scott Forstall, Jobs seemed to be hanging back for a surprisingly large part of the presentation.

In his absence, Schiller, looking slightly sloppy in jeans and an oversized casual shirt and struggling to suppress distressingly high number of uh’s and umm’s, introduced the Mac Pro, which replaces the PowerPC-based Powermac G5, and an updated version of Apple’s XServe rack-mount server. Both are great machines by any estimation, but Schiller’s ho-hum rundown of the specifications failed to generate much excitement from the WWDC attendees or myself; given the unspeakable anticipation that surrounded the keynote, it was more than a bit anticlimactic. Jobs uses the same language as Schiller did–“amazing”, “incredible”, “fantastic”–but his charisma and dynamism as a speaker imbue even those tired adjectives with stupendously supercharged excitement. At a real Stevenote, everything old is new again.

After Schiller, Jobs took the stage again, but only to introduce Serlet, who delivered a mildly amusing attack on a perceived lack of innovation at Microsoft in Windows Vista–a “copycat”, according to Apple–and then Forstall, who presented most of a highly anticipated preview of the company’s next version of OS X (10.5), codenamed Leopard. Forstall performed passably, though his relative youth failed to grant his words much conviction or authority, but it was obvious to me that Jobs should have led the preview rather than being relegated to discussing pedestrian, even goofy, updates to minor applications like Mail, iCal, and Boot Camp (although the demonstrations of the “Spaces” virtual desktop feature and improved text-to-speech functionality benefited enormously from the Jobs touch). The company is pitching the Time Machine backup utility as a centerpiece of the release, and it was strange to have an outsider–at least, someone unfamiliar from prior keynotes–hyping it up.

It may be, as Mr. Kahney suggested, that Jobs is eager to step back from his day-to-day duties at Apple and is “grooming” replacements during this sort of tag-team keynote. I, for one, hope that this is not the case. Apple has a tremendous range of products backed by an intensely focused and creative chief executive, and losing him could cost the company its media-darling status and its devoted fanbase. We’ll just have to wait until the next “special event” to see for sure, I suppose.

–D. S. W.


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