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MacWorld MacDull: Is Apple's Innovative Era Over?

If no news is good news, Apple just hit one out of the ballpark. At the annual Macworld trade show in San Francisco today, Apple put on an excruciating 90-minute keynote that may go down in history as the worst Apple event of all time. In brief: for the first time in recent memory, Apple has nothing interesting to sell. And the company's remarkable decadelong run as the hottest company in consumer electronics may be drawing to a close.

For the past decade Apple CEO Steve Jobs has been the star of Macworld, thrilling the Apple faithful with artfully staged keynotes and amazing new products. But a few weeks ago Apple announced that Jobs would not be in attendance this year and would send Apple marketing chief Phil Schiller in his place.

That fueled yet more speculation about Jobs's health—he's been looking sick for a year now. But the real reason for Jobs's pull-out may be much simpler than that. It may be that he simply didn't want to get up without anything interesting to say.

So that fun job fell to Schiller, who's a nice enough guy but a bit of a schlub. The poor guy limped through the first hour of showing new features in iLife and iWork, Apple's desktop software programs for making movies, managing photos and creating spreadsheets.

How bad was it? Let me put this as politely as possible. It was awful. Almost unbearable. Hacks in the press pool were sighing, groaning, checking e-mail on their BlackBerries and iPhones, not even paying attention. One of my fellow journalists sent me a message from across the room: "Shoot me now."

The only event I've ever seen that was more boring was Microsoft's rollout of Windows Vista in New York a few years ago. I was left today with the same feeling I had at the Vista event: these guys have run out of ideas, so now they're just piling more and more features onto existing products, loading them up with complexity and calling it innovation. The demo of the new version of iMovie made me want to scream. Loads of confusing new features, a zillion new pulldown menus and functions that nobody in their right mind will ever sit down and learn.
This from the company that prides itself on its Zen-like simplicity?

As for what was announced, there's a new version of iLife, a new version of iWork and a box set that lets you buy those two suites with a copy of OS X Leopard. The new version of iPhoto, Apple's photo-management software, has a face-recognition capability that is in fact very cool and probably worth the $79 upgrade price all by itself. There's a new service called iWork.com that lets you share documents in an online "cloud"—but for now it's just beta software.

There's some new pricing on iTunes, with songs available for 69 cents and $1.29 instead of everything at 99 cents. You'll soon be able to buy all of the iTunes music library in DRM-free form. And there's a new 17-inch, $2,800 MacBook Pro with a superduper battery that Apple deemed worthy enough to devote a special video presentation about. Yeah. There was a movie about batteries. It was like dat, y'all.

My takeaway? This is a company that has run out of gas. The image of Steve Jobs in declining health, losing weight, looking old and tired, turns out to be a perfect metaphor for Apple itself. You get the sense that these guys have just worked themselves into exhaustion over the past decade and now just need a break.

The show closed with Tony Bennett singing "The Best Is Yet to Come," which Schiller said was the message of the day. But the more appropriate song was Bennett's second number, "I Left My Heart in San Francisco," a wistful, nostalgic tune about bygone glory days.

At the same time it announced that Jobs would not speak at this year's Macworld, Apple also announced that it would not participate in any future Macworld shows. Thus the whole thing feels like the end of an era. Jobs is sick, Apple has lost its sizzle, and without the participation of Apple, the Macworld show, the annual mecca for Apple fans worldwide, will no longer matter. Sad stuff. Still there were the diehards who seemed willing and eager to applaud the tiniest improvements like new features in pull-down menus. Apple may be appealing to those folks, but weren't they supposed to build computers for the rest of us?