Page last updated at 09:56 GMT, Monday, 5 January 2009

Cloud hangs over Macworld opening

By Maggie Shiels
Technology reporter, BBC News, Silicon Valley

Macworld 2009 banners
More than 50,000 people are expected to attend the annual event

Macworld, the annual tech gathering for the Apple faithful in San Francisco, opens with a cloud hanging over it.

In a surprise move, the company recently shocked fans by announcing this year's event is its last.

It also revealed that chief executive Steve Jobs would not present the keynote address, reigniting speculation his health has deteriorated following pancreatic cancer surgery in 2004.

Some analysts, however, see Mr Jobs' decision as part of a succession plan.

"Steve is clearly beginning to share the spotlight with some other executives and sooner or later someone has to step up to the CEO role," said Van Baker, vice-president of research for IT consulting firm Gartner.

"I don't think this is about Steve's health. I think he is trying to back off from being a 'one man band' and he is trying to make way for a possible succession and spread the wealth among the executive team that Apple has," explained Mr Baker to BBC News.

Apple has said the reason for pulling out of future shows is because it feels the forum does not provide value for money.

In an earlier statement, the company said that "every week 3.5m people visit our retail stores. And like many companies, trade shows are a minor part of how Apple reaches its customers".

Rumour mill

With Apple refusing to answer questions about Mr Jobs' health, concern and rumour continues to take on a life of its own. Much of it was sparked off in the middle of last year when he appeared at Apple's World Wide Developer Conference looking very thin and gaunt.

Just last week, a popular tech and gadget website, posted a report from an anonymous source who said Mr Jobs' health was "rapidly declining".

Steve Jobs at WWDC
A thin looking Mr Jobs at last year's WWDC reignited health concerns

Within minutes, Apple stock dipped from $87.92 (60.60) to $84.72 (58.42). It rallied at the end of the day but this demonstrates how sensitive the market is to the issue.

Mr Baker, however, believes there really is nothing to worry about when it comes to either the health of Apple's boss or that of the company he has been credited with turning into such a dominant force.

"I think it's much ado about nothing, to be honest with you. Of course I could be wrong, but I think if he had anything that was truly life threatening there is an onus on the board and on him to share that with shareholders," stated Mr Baker.

However, some analysts believe that Apple will suffer without Mr Jobs at the helm.

"Apple can't survive the way it is without Steve Jobs," Rob Enderle, principal analyst at the Enderle Group, told the San Jose Mercury News.

"It will have to change dramatically because it's been so designed around Steve."

That view is upheld by LA Times columnist Michael Hiltzik, who asks what he calls the crass question - "What is Apple Inc's plan if CEO Steve Jobs dies?"

Mr Hiltzik wrote: "I hope the day when Apple has to contemplate life without Steve Jobs stays far, far in the future. But the value of the company and the perception of its future are now tied, at least in the short term, to the public perception of his future."

Silent protest

Mr Jobs' decision not to present Tuesday's keynote speech now means the spotlight will be turned on Apple's senior vice-president of worldwide product marketing, Phil Shiller, who will stand in.

iPod poster
Instead of Macworld, stand alone events will be used to push products

The presentation has in the past been likened to that of a rock concert, with the audience cheering every announcement. It has also been a highly visible platform for Steve Jobs, who has delighted the Mac fans by giving them a first glimpse of new products such as the iPhone, the iPod and the Mac Air book among others.

"This really feels like we are making a pilgrimage to the mother ship to see what Steve is going to give us for the next year," explained Lesa Snider King, who met her husband at Macworld and planned the wedding around the expo in 2006.

As a long time Mac user, regular Macworld attendee, and Mac training instructor, Ms Snider King told the BBC she was so disappointed at Apple's decision to pull out of future shows that she had organised a protest. She has called on the Mac community to stay silent during Mr Shiller's keynote address.

"I don't want anybody to be rude, or throw things or heckle or anything. Our anger will speak volumes by us not saying anything. This isn't personal against Mr Shiller but it's aimed at sending a message to Apple," Ms Snider King explained.

"There is a whole ecosystem that centres around Macworld and it's not just about Apple. There are hundreds of mom-and-pop companies who will be adversely affected," she said.

Ms Snider King added that while she has had a lot of positive response, there has been something of a backlash to her idea.

"There have been quite a number of very vile, mean personal attacks over it which I have found shocking. I never dreamt in a million years that I would have people calling me names that I don't dare repeat. But this is important. Apple pulling out of Macworld has the potential to kill the show.

"Apple have always had this thing about eating their young and I feel that is what they have done here," said Ms Snider King.

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