It's as much a part of the season as bowl games and broken resolutions: Every year around this time, the Macolytes return to San Francisco's Moscone Center.
If you're not among my tribe, if you're not a true believer in the Macintosh platform, you may find this hard to grasp, but the annual Macworld Expo is not so much a trade show as it is a show of faith. This week, around 80,000 pilgrims from around the world will don their neck badges and comfortable shoes and march cheerfully through four days and nights of conferences, product demos, fire-and-brimstone sermons and non-stop parties.
To understand the significance of this cultural festival, one must look beyond the boozing, the schmoozing and the big-money deals. These legions of faithful - from schoolteachers to software moguls, rock stars to retirees - have come to reassure each other that the Mac still matters. From this divine fellowship, they summon the strength to face another year in a world dominated by the dark forces of Microsoft and Intel.
And so, on the eve of this most festive week, let the call go forth to all the wired corners of the Western Hemisphere and to every site on the World Wide Web where the light of Apple shines: Be of good cheer, brothers and sisters. For there are signs that our darkest days are over. For the first time in recent memory, there is reason to believe we shall be sustained by more than faith alone.
The soothsayers and software developers bring word of a new, robust operating system borne by the Archangel Steve of Next. The day of salvation, merger and acquisition draws near. In this 13th year of Our Mac, the Lost Tribe of Redwood City shall cleave unto the Mother Church of Cupertino, and the whole world, Windows and Mac alike, shall hear the news: The Rainbow Covenant is alive. Yea and verily.
Regardless of what transpires in the twin bunkers of Moscone this week, this is certain to be a happier convocation than last year's grim feast. Then, there were precious few Apple execs on hand to enunciate the company's strategy and rebut what had amounted to a year of terrible news. If the people charged with leading the flock weren't poring over their own severance agreements, they were too busy denying shake-up rumors to be of much use to anyone. In terms of leadership, it was clear that Apple CEO Michael Spindler, affectionately known as "The Diesel," was running on little more than fumes.
There was next to nothing worth celebrating in the Apple pavilion: a teaser of the long-awaited Copland operating system and an integrated set of Net tools called Cyberdog. And out on the byways of the digital village, the hottest item wasn't a Mac product at all - it was Be Inc.'s BeBox, a super-powered workstation with twin CPUs. Outside the hall, industry analysts wondered aloud if Apple was financially lost. And inside, even the true believers had to wonder if the company was spiritually and intellectually lost.
This time around, the Mac tribe has every reason to march into Moscone expecting good news. Spindler's long gone, and his successor, turnaround titan Gil Amelio, has conclusively put to rest all rumors that Apple is going to vanish. Thanks to Apple's whirlwind romance with Next Software, some of the pundits who were measuring the coffin and booking the funeral home last year are now busying themselves with wedding preparations.
I have to admit I have mixed feelings about Steve Jobs leading a cavalry charge of 350 Next troops down the verdant I-280 trail to save Fortress Apple. There is a cool symmetry and a touch of historic justice to the move - the parent coming home after more than a decade gone. On the other hand, a lot of us will probably forever associate Jobs with the very best and worst of Apple culture. The bravado and drive behind the original Mac is the best. The supreme arrogance, the let-the-world-come-to-us attitude that set the company on this rocky path, is the worst. And they are two sides of the same coin. With Jobs set to play Rasputin in Amelio's court, anything could happen.
Any jitters about the second coming of Jobs should not detract from the enthusiasm over the deal itself. It's good business, a great mix of technology and, most importantly, a chance for Apple to regain its sense of mission. For all too long, the torch of faith has been sustained by lay people, while the high priests of Apple muddled along in 19 different directions. Now, the religious obsession must be kindled anew within the walls of Infinite Loop. What's left of the priesthood must set aside its understandable bitterness over the abandonment of Copland and unite behind a common goal: making an insanely great product. They must stop thinking and acting like widget makers and once again start believing that they are in the business of handing lightning bolts to mere mortals.
This should all become clear this week when Amelio, as the titular head of our sect, delivers the most important keynote address of his - and Mac's - life. If all goes well, this gentle and thoughtful man will emerge from the green room madder than a grizzly bear with jock itch. The podium and dais shall quake and splinter at his touch. His righteous invective will set off fire sprinklers in offices two blocks distant. The assembled throng shall sweat and weep. And the skies above Redmond, Wash., shall turn a darker shade of gray.
There are three towering worries that put all other concerns in deep shadow. Amelio must use the keynote speech to flat-out demolish all three.
- The OS situation. The aging Mac operating system - the underlying layer of software that controls the computer - is now the greatest single threat to Apple's future. Essentially, Apple took a great design for a sports car, circa 1984, and tried to evolve a line of trucks, station wagons and buses around it. Each new model had slightly different wiring and slightly different engine specs. Today, the result is a cobbled-together, crash-prone operating system riddled with conflicts and the detritus of seven layers of makeovers. The system folder that controls the machine is now a Baroque nightmare that often contains more than 1,000 individual parts.
As of yet, it's unclear how much of the existing structure will remain under the new OS. Are we starting from scratch, or will we be salvaging key parts of the Copland system that Apple invested three years in building? We can accept the fact that the "Harmony" update due out in a few weeks is just a Band-Aid if Amelio explains just what true salvation will look like, and promises that it will arrive before the end of the year.
One thing is for sure: The first generation of the new OS must be able to run existing Mac applications. I know some developers inside and outside Apple will howl mightily that this would hobble the new OS with a huge burden before it can even stand up and walk, but it's a crucial requirement. To keep the long-suffering faithful waiting into mid-'98 would be tantamount to telling them that if they don't have a high-end PowerPC, they don't count. Big mistake.
- The Internet situation. The Mac should be the vehicle of choice for those millions who are currently making the migration to the Net. But it isn't. Not yet. There are 31 flavors of TCP/IP connection for the Mac, and most are held together by shareware and guesswork. Asking a first-time computer user to wade through this mire is not only unconscionable, it's antithetical to the Macintosh Way. Amelio should say it straight out: "In the Net race, Microsoft kicked our [filtered word]. While we fiddled around, they remade themselves as a Net-centric company. They made it easy for Net developers to ignore us. Now here's how we intend to make the Mac the simplest Internet platform in the world."
- The Vision Thing. Above all else, Amelio must explain to a battered and weary flock what the Rainbow Covenant stands for, now and in the future. Is Mac the platform for the media-creator class, the schoolroom and the family room? Is it the platform for everyone else? How much longer can Apple be both a hardware company and a software company, peddling everything from digital cameras to networking software?
The speech, the show, the whole shooting match comes down to this: Tell us we are not lost anymore. And tell us our faith was not misplaced. From the very beginning, the Mac has inspired ordinary people to dream - and achieve - extraordinary things.
Tell us it is safe to dream the big dreams again.