Macworld Expo Prelude

One thing that makes being an Apple pundit fun is that it’s akin to Cold-War era Kremlinology — to predict or analyze an opaque, secretive organization, you’ve got to read between the lines of the few things they do say, and you’ve got to know how to interpret silence.

If it’s even possible, Apple has gotten even better at keeping keynote announcements under wraps in recent years. One reason for this is simple: Apple engineers don’t leak. And I think the reason for that is pretty simple, too: Apple engineers really like their jobs. If you want to work for a company like Apple, on products like those that Apple makes, you’ve pretty much got to work for Apple, because there are no similar companies.

Consider last year’s iPhone announcement at Macworld. Expectations were running high that Apple was set to announce a phone of some sort, but not a single detail of the iPhone leaked in advance. According to Wired’s Fred Vogelstein, Apple had 200 engineers working on the iPhone. Even if Vogelstein’s number is high, it can’t be too far off the mark. That’s 200 engineers who knew specific details about the iPhone, not a single one of whom leaked to the press.

So while serious Apple enthusiasts follow along with all the pre-Expo rumors regarding Apple announcements, everyone knows that Apple is fully capable of keeping something huge completely under wraps.

From an official PR perspective, Apple, famously, says nothing regarding what it will or will not be announcing before a major keynote. But they do, somehow, seem to occasionally manage expectations quietly behind the scenes. While everyone marvels at the massive amount of “free” publicity that Apple garners during the “let’s speculate about what they’re going to announce” pre-keynote prelude, that publicity and speculation does Apple no good and even hurts them if what they’re actually prepared to announce doesn’t meet the level of speculation. And the date for Macworld Expo is set over a year in advance; if a major new product falls behind schedule, Apple can’t move Macworld Expo back accordingly.

The upside to last year’s iPhone announcement was an avalanche of press coverage. The iPhone made the front page of almost every newspaper in America the next day. Front page news for an announcement of a new cell phone coming six months later. The downside, though, is that expectations are higher than ever that whatever it is they’re announcing this year, it too will be front-page news-worthy. That’s just not possible year in and year out.

And so what I’ve noticed over the years is that in the week or so prior to a keynote, if expectations are running too high, word somehow gets out, at least to the press. What made last year’s pre-Expo prelude so electrifying is that while speculation was rampant that Apple would announce a phone, there was no one — no one — saying “Well, that’s not what I’ve heard.” When, in the face of white-hot speculation, Apple goes totally silent both officially and privately, that’s when they have something big.

Things were dead quiet last year. And they seem pretty quiet again this year. Donning my Cupertino-Kremlinology hat, I can’t help but see last week’s week-before-Macworld debut of brand-new Mac Pros as a hint that their keynote announcements plate runneth over. But there’s a big difference this year — last year, speculation was running rampant about one particular thing, “the phone”; this year, not so much. The consensus rumors and guesses are interesting but not earth-shaking.

In a mild/medium/hot scale, where mild is a lame keynote that’s mostly a “state of the Apple Union” address and hot is a major new product along the lines of the iPhone, my gut feeling is that we’re looking at a medium — spicy enough to be enjoyable, but not one for the ages.