Updated from 11:03 a.m. ESTApple ( AAPL)'s lack of new products at this year's Macworld Expo, although shocking to some, signals some major changes in the secretive tech giant's long-term marketing strategy. Despite rumors of a new Mac mini, an iPhone nano and even a media server, Apple made just a handful of product introductions at Macworld on Tuesday, including an ultra-thin 17-inch Macbook, new iTunes pricing and some software enhancements. Apple recently sent shockwaves through the tech industry when it announced that 2009 would be its last year to exhibit at Macworld, where it has traditionally showcased its latest technologies. The company's CEO, Steve Jobs, has also been conspicuous by his absence from the San Francisco event this week, with Apple marketing chief Philip Schiller giving the opening day keynote address. Jobs, whose health has been under intense scrutiny from investors and the media during recent months, usually delivers the Macworld keynote speech, so his decision to delegate this role underlines a change in Apple's strategy. Apple now claims that trade shows offer relatively little access to its broader customer base, and the tech firm has scaled back its involvement in the NAB broadcast show, Macworld events in New York and Tokyo, and the Apple Expo in Paris. With more than 3.5 million people visiting its retail stores each week, and more than 100 million accessing its Web site, Apple clearly feels comfortable stepping away from the conference arena. And why not? The average iPod or iPhone user is more likely to get a tattoo than hang with the conference show geeks.
Apple may also be attempting to liberate its product roadmap from the trade show schedule, which often forces tech firms to push their latest announcements through to coincide with a specific event. "Now Apple no longer has to be held hostage to a timetable dictated by Macworld," wrote a self-confessed Apple "groupie" in an email to TheStreet.com on Tuesday. "In the past,
that often led to forced announcements of products and/or software dictated by a conference rather than true readiness." Apple is also in an unusual situation thanks to the media dust cloud that constantly follows the company and its CEO. Like Google ( GOOG) and, to a certain extent, Microsoft ( MSFT), Apple's every move is so closely scrutinized that it no longer needs the launch pad offered by technology conferences. The media, for example, were salivating over the scant details contained in the invitation to Apple's recent notebook launch event, and the blogosphere is full of articles deciphering every comment or shred of information that comes out of Cupertino. At least one analyst was hardly surprised by Apple's low-key approach to its final Macworld. "With Steve Jobs not presenting, expectations were low and today's announcements were in line with our supply-chain checks on the hardware side," wrote David Bailey, an analyst at Goldman Sachs, in a note released Tuesday. Despite the lack of fireworks in San Francisco this week, Bailey feels that Apple's overall Mac business remains relatively healthy in the face a weakening PC market . " The Macworld product updates should help keep Mac growth above the industry average - although, even here we expect sharp deceleration to 6% unit growth in FY2009 versus 38% in FY2008."
Apple, which released strong fourth-quarter results in October, will continue to perform well, at least in the short term, according to Bailey. "We continue to see a solid December quarter for Apple, particularly on the bottom line due to favorable component pricing and mix, but see downside risk to March and June quarter estimates, as consumer weakness, compounded by seasonality, creates a tougher environment for Apple's higher-end offerings," he wrote. Apple shares closed down 1.9% Thursday, settling at $92.70.