Job-less Apple Shows Thin Threads

There was a time when keynote addresses by Apple CEO Steve Jobs were the hottest tickets in town.

These were "events" not to be missed by the media and Mac faithful. Some events were lavish productions; think Macworld, the Worldwide Developers Conference. Others were beautifully understated, but resonated nonetheless with a subtle grandness that made these events truly extraordinary; think the U2 event in San Jose when Bono and the Edge joined Jobs on stage to unveil the specially branded U2 iPod.

And all these events had one thing in common. Not Jobs, but Jobs' magic that made these affairs go off without a hitch. They were superbly choreographed. They were perfect. They were hitchless. They went smoothly for one reason: If they didn't, Jobs would issue a summary execution of those involved. Heads would roll. It would be ugly. Jobs didn't merely inspire perfection; he demanded it, and heaven help the poor Apple plebe who didn't measure up. I do remember a slight issue, not with an Apple product, but with a performance by KT Tunstall at an iPod special event a couple of years ago. Her drum-beat machine was on the fritz and she had some performance problems. But she was merely the entertainment, not a key product demo.

We're all looking for changes in the Apple structure with Jobs out of the day-to-day management of the company since his medical leave in January. And until yesterday's Developers Conference keynote with Phil Schiller, there have been precious few examples of Apple's perfection wearing thin.

And then *shocking a product demo went awry. It happened with a science experiment from Pasco, showing off its latest app for the iPhone. iPhone exec Scott Forstall even donned lab coat and goggles for the skit. A balloon attached to a hose wouldn't inflate and the whole demo flew off the tracks. Embarrassing, yes, but not cataclysmic. Just strange at an event that is so completely and carefully choreographed.

It's when minutes later, *gasp, ANOTHER demo derailed live on stage, this one from Line6 and Planet Waves, that many of us covering the event began looking at one another. What the heck was going on? So very unApple. The companies' digital modeling iPhone apps for guitar players just couldn't sync up. In theory, it was neat technology, but it just couldn't work. Some soft-shoe side-stepping on stage by company execs, and then some damage control by Forstall couldn't mask the weirdness of it all. The bright light of Steve Jobs and his star status might have helped cover up these kinds of glitches, but without it, the glitches themselves were glaring.

Look, I make a career of working in live television. Things go wrong. More often than you think. And sometimes it's embarrassing. And sometimes mistakes are made because of something silly, or careless, or just because of stupidity. Guilty as charged! Things go wrong on Broadway all the time. We all strive for perfection, but sometimes things simply go wrong. Sh*t happens. But historically, that sh*t hasn't happened to Apple. At least not live, in front of 5,000 people during a keynote address.

Is this a sign of a new Apple? A fallible Apple? An Apple susceptible to the same kinds of live glitches that torment just about anyone else having to deal with technology nowadays? For a company so image conscious, these issues -- small that they were -- came out of nowhere and were a big surprise to some of the attendees I spoke to. A huge problem? Certainly not. But just a sign that Jobs' return might be coming at a very good time for the company.

I'm sure everyone on the Apple campus pays very close attention to every detail, no matter how small. But no one does that better than Jobs himself, and yesterday's glitches might suggest his return to Apple in a few weeks comes none too soon.

Meantime, even though he's officially still away from the office, I have no doubt that someone got an earful.

Questions? Comments?