Macworld minus Steve Jobs: a low key expo?

Some analysts expect a low-key Macworld Conference & Expo this week as Apple Inc. offers up its last keynote without its primary pitchman, CEO Steve Jobs.

But others aren’t so sure that the company known for big product announcements will forgo the opportunity, if only because Jobs won’t be on the stage.

“We’ll see a couple of product line refreshes in hardware and software, but that’s probably about it,” said Van Baker, a research vice president with Gartner Inc. “I have pretty low expectations.”

Baker’s take was not shared by Ezra Gottheil , an analyst with Technology Business Research Inc., who was more confident that Apple would try to make noise — even without Jobs. “I think they’ll try to make a splash, or at least as much as they can with what they’ve got,” he said.

That was something even Baker agreed with. “They’ll make it as dramatic as they can,” said Baker. “Apple’s the only company I know that can get a major media event out of a refresh of the iPod nano. They’ll play it up for whatever it’s worth, even though it’s a lousy time of the year and it’s a lousy economy.”

Rumors and speculation about what Apple will unveil during the keynote that begins Tuesday at 1 p.m. EST has been muted compared to years past, in large part because the company announced in mid-December that Jobs would not handle the chore . Instead, Philip Schiller , the company’s senior product marketing executive, will stalk the stage.

In related news today, Jobs broke a six-month silence about his health to say that he is undergoing treatment for a hormone imbalance that has caused him to lose weight. That weight loss had fueled speculation that Jobs, who had cancer surgery in 2004, was again seriously ill. In a statement released by Apple early Monday , Jobs said regaining his health is “my #1 priority,” and added that he is skipping Macworld to “spend the holiday season with my family.”

“I’m not expecting anything big,” said Gartner’s Baker, of Schiller’s keynote announcements. “But you never know. Apple keeps [its] cards close to the vest.”

Gottheil was willing to go farther out on the limb and get specific about his predictions. “I expect to see a refresh of the Mac mini,” he said, referring to Apple’s lowest-priced, and lowest-powered, desktop computer. “And a refresh of the [desktop] half of their product line, which took a hit last quarter.”

Several Apple-specific sites, including MacNN , have pegged revisions to the iMac and Mac mini lines as likely.

But contrary to some speculators, including Computerworld blogger Seth Weintraub, Gottheil doesn’t expect a new version of the most expensive MacBook Pro, the model that boasts a 17-in. screen. “I don’t see a 17-in. [MacBook Pro] unibody,” Gottheil said. “That market is not large enough to sustain the investment in retooling.”

Weintraub and others have been talking up the possibility that Apple will reveal a large-format MacBook Pro that not only uses the same kind of aluminum “unibody” case that the company debuted in October with its lower-priced laptops, but also one that features a new kind of battery technology .

If Apple rumor blogs are any indication, Schiller may spring any number of surprises, ranging from the repetitive — a tablet-style Mac or a scaled-down iPhone “nano” — to the original, such as pushing the iWork application suite into the cloud . Gottheil doesn’t think any of those would show when Schiller was on stage, but he did admit to hoping for some new hardware.

“I still think there’s a shot that Apple will introduce a netbook contender,” he said. Last month, Gottheil speculated that Apple would announce, though not ship, at least one new laptop that could compete with the fast-growing “netbook” category of lightweight and low-priced portable PCs.

“I still think [netbooks] make some kind of sense for Apple,” Gottheil maintained, sticking to his prognosticating guns.

Gottheil was even willing to bet that Jobs might make a cameo appearance. “I wouldn’t be surprised,” he said. “But if he did, it wouldn’t be for the ‘One more thing’ moment at the end.”

Jobs has been famous for running through a slew of announcements at venues like Macworld, only to stop near the end to unveil just one final — and usually the most dramatic — product.

Gottheil’s reasoning was straightforward: If other executives are to take some of the burden off Jobs’ shoulders, as increasingly seems apparent, then Schiller should be the one to pull back the curtain on that last product.

“I don’t think they’ll tone down the noise,” he said. “Apple would be happier to make a splash with someone other than Jobs.”

Computerworld (US)

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