The Seven Veils of Steve Jobs

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Getting to see Steve Jobs at Apple is like having an audience with one of the later Roman Emperors, powerfully charismatic men who loved the adulation of the crowd in the Coliseum but made sure to put many veils between themselves and visitors. The object, it seems, is to drench you in anticipation.

First you experience the Emperor wowing hundreds of the frenzied Mac faithful with his latest chunk of totemic technology. Then attendants sit and chat with you in holding rooms, each room progressively larger and quieter than the last, the whole process subtly recalling of the huge body of history and myth surrounding this man (the co-creator of the first PC; the owner of the infamous reality distortion field that infects all bystanders in a 100ft. radius with his evangelical zeal; the notoriously arrogant hard-ass as played by Noah Wylie in the TNT special "Pirates of Silicon Valley").

And if your mouth is dry and your hands clammy by the time you reach him, Jobs will know it. He'll bat your slightly probing questions away like bugs. He'll smash your really probing questions in mid-sentence like conspiratorial vials of poison. As one journalist who has covered the man for many years says, "he can smell fear."

Still, we seem to love the lion's den experience, the Silicon Valley press corps. There we were again on Tuesday, crammed into the auditorium of Infinite Loop building 4 on Apple's Cupertino campus for the launch of the new and improved iBook. Who else but Jobs could attract a standing-room-only theaterful of journos for something so mundane as a laptop show-and-tell, we mused afterwards? To be fair, most of us were there as a result of that classic Apple tactic: don't show or tell until the very last possible moment.

Apple's advance troops are generally among the best in the world when it comes to building buzz around product launches. Here's how it usually happens: two weeks before the event, you get a call from a PR rep telling you a new and highly secret product is about to be unveiled, they say. We're not allowed to say what it is. Come join us if you want to know more. It could be anything: the successor to the G4 desktop, which would be a pretty big story, or nothing more earth-shattering than a new pastel color makeover for the iMac, in which case you'll end up blowing four hours of your time and half a tank of gas.

So having been handed a secret to crack, you go all Woodward and Bernstein on the PR rep. How big is it, you ask, on a scale of one to ten, with one being the horrifyingly awful hockey-puck mouse and ten being the original Macintosh? Between five and seven, they say. Just enough to keep you interested; not enough to overplay their hand.

They drop miniscule hints, like "think titanium powerbook. It's as big as that." Meanwhile, rumors start spreading virally on the Mac loyalist websites. It's going to be a widescreen iMac, says one. No, they're going to announce a nationwide chain of Apple boutiques, argues another. Now you're in a state of hyped-up curiousity. And there's nothing better suited to Jobs' dance of the seven veils than a room of hyped-up, curious people.

This is the script, familiar to veterans of Macworld Expos ever since Jobs returned from exile. But here's the curious thing about Tuesday's performance: from this point on, the script got lost.

In the first unheard-of departure, Jobs actually started on time. Secondly, his audience was press only rather than press plus trade-show loyalists, which made it rather like watching the Yankees in an empty stadium; our appreciative and respectful silence when he finally held the iBook aloft like a trophy didn't quite cut it. It didn't quite feel like the Emperor was wearing no clothes (he was, in fact, decked out in traditional black turtleneck and blue jeans), but it came close. Thirdly, he was almost — gasp! — subdued during the subsequent interview. I swear, he almost smiled once.

So why launch now? Why not wait for the next Macworld and its attendant wave of adoration? Jobs claims he was trying to catch what is known as the "dads and grads" season, the mid-May madness when most computers used by students and educators are actually bought. (The new, lighter, fully-featured low-priced iBook is being heavily promoted as a boon to education, and Apple was handed a dream piece of publicity when one school district in Virginia pre-ordered a whopping 23,000 of them).

A valid reason, to be sure. But maybe the scaled-back nature of the show means more than that. Perhaps Apple is tentatively reaching the conclusion that it doesn't matter how much hoopla gets thrown up around a product: it will rise and fall on its own merits. The G4 cube and the G4 titanium Powerbook were launched with equal mystery and equal fanfare, six months apart. Both looked eminently cool when Jobs pulled back the veil. Yet the cube tanked tremendously, tearing a huge hole in Apple's year 2000 profits, while the Powerbook sold like lemonade during a rolling blackout, driving Apple to one of its best (and as far as Wall Street was concerned, most unexpected) quarter ever.

People simply want laptops more than they want desktops these days, and neither the adoration of the Coliseum nor the intimidation of the veiled Emperor will change this fundamental fact of the marketplace. Does that mean Jobs will be a softer touch to interview one of these days?

Let's hope not. Like Anne Robinson of "Weakest Link" fame, some celebs are much more fascinating when they're nasty.