Steve Jobs' keynote speech on Monday was the most uninspiring he's given in recent memory. It hints at the trouble Apple will be in marketing-wise if he ever steps down.
Steve Jobs usually gives his keynote speeches solo, but at Apple's annual developers conference here on Monday morning, he shared presenting duties with three of his lieutenants, leaving the stage whenever they took turns to get up and talk.
Jobs is so charismatic, his talks are usually mesmerizing. I've seen almost every one he's given in the last 10 years, and he effortlessly sucks the audience into his famous "reality distortion field," a state of suspended disbelief that makes even mundane products seem like miracles of technology.
In the past, I've found myself clapping wildly at the most mundane product features, or the tiniest increase in market share, despite trying to maintain a steely, Zen-like editorial impartiality.
But on Monday, the yo-yoing of alternating presenters utterly broke the spell. Mundane product details were revealed for what they were -- mundane product details.
Looking very thin, almost gaunt, Jobs used the 90-minute presentation to introduce a new desktop Mac and preview the next version of Apple's operating system, code-named Leopard.
The sneak preview of Leopard was underwhelming. For what seemed an interminable time, Jobs and Co. showed off one yawn after another. There's no way I can get excited about virtual desktops or a new service that turns highlighted text into a "to do" item. Oooo.
Granted, the system as a whole looks slick, and Jobs said he was keeping some new features "top secret" to stop Microsoft from copying them. But the sneak peek just confirmed what we already know: OS X is so mature and polished, major system upgrades are more about tweaks than big new functions. (Yeah, I know there's a lot of technical wizardry under the hood, but that's for the geeks).
The audience reacted like cinema-goers determined to have a good time at a bad movie, forcing cheers at unlikely points. When wild, over-the-top applause broke out for speed gains in new servers, the reporter sitting next to me burst out laughing.
"This is like a Monty Python sketch," she said, incredulous.
Worse, Jobs dispensed with his "one more thing" surprise finale. Jobs usually saves his biggest announcement for last. As he appears to be wrapping up, he says, 'oh, I nearly forgot' and ploughs into the big news of the day. It's a well-worn routine, but it builds excitement and suspense.
But he tossed off the day's big news -- the new Mac Pro desktop -- early in the show. Yeah, everyone knew it was coming, but why dispense with it early on? It's weird and puzzling.
I wondered if Jobs, who was treated for cancer last year, was sick. Was he sharing presentation duties to save energy? When I saw Jobs introducing the iPod Hi-Fi at Apple's headquarters in late February, about five months ago, it looked to me like he was tiring quickly and was glad to get it over.
But a couple of people I canvassed after Monday's keynote thought he looked fine.
I also wondered if he were testing -- or grooming -- possible successors if he should decide take a back seat, or step down, or worse.
Apple's head of marketing, Phil Schiller, is the most relaxed of the bunch and has his own cuddly charm. He has taken the reins before in Paris, where he got good reviews. But one thing's for sure -- he's not Steve Jobs.
This week's developer's conference is a big show for Mac nerds. More than 4,000 of them paid a pretty penny to be here this week, and Jobs' talk is the highlight of the show. For many of them, this is the only chance they get to see their hero in the flesh.
I don't think they got their money's worth.