Apple crashes CES party with Mac App Store

Suddenly, Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer's Consumer Electronics Show keynote is a heavier burden. Ballmer will open CES, with a 9:30 pm EST keynote on Jan. 5, 2011. On January 6th, Apple will officially launch the Mac App Store, exclusively for Mac OS X 10.6 (aka Snow Leopard). Earlier this morning, Apple announced the store opening date, and you can be sure timing is deliberate.

For years, Apple has played a game of oneupmanship with CES, timing announcements so that they would suck away some of the excitement and press coverage around products debuted or updated there -- iPhone in 2007, MacBook Air in 2008 and iPad in 2010. Then there are the rumors, often obviously from internal leaks, ahead of big Apple announcements. Apple has a knack for marketing manipulation -- controlling the message and perception. Blogs' and news sites' ever quest for pageviews makes every Apple rumor worth another story. Then there is clear media bias favoring Apple.

But there's more than CES oneupmanship at work. I've long asserted that much of Apple's recent stock performance is as much about perception as corporate execution. About a year ago I asked "Are Apple stock price gains the reason for recent tablet rumors?" The answer was yes, when looking at share rises against the rumors. I'd argue that throughout much of 2009 and 2010, Apple rumors and product announcements pushed shares ever higher. Apple has gotten very good at managing perception. The best perception opportunity comes when there is something for comparison.

So, as Ballmer takes the keynote stage, many heads will be turned away to the Mac App Store. Apple will launch the store in 90 countries. Assuming global means local time, the store will already be available in some countries before Balmer takes the keynote stage. Even if Apple sets a Pacific local time for January 6th, the buzz will be deafening.

The good thing for Microsoft is the announced date; Ballmer and his executive team now know when. Previously, Apple had only indicated January. Ballmer knows what he's up against, and in a way Apple CEO Steve Jobs has issued a challenge. I say that because of the rumors Ballmer will show off OEM partners' new Windows-powered tablets and slates during the keynote and possibly Windows 8. It is against these products that analysts, bloggers and journalists will compare the Mac App Store. Jobs and Company are cocky, confident, that Microsoft won't have anything really exciting to show -- or anyone else during CES.

It's a strange attitude. The Mac App Store's value is marginal. "The App Store revolutionized mobile apps," Jobs asserted in a statement. "We hope to do the same for PC apps with the Mac App Store by making finding and buying PC apps easy and fun. We can't wait to get started on January 6." If not for Apple's mobile App Store success, its Macintosh counterpart would be nearly meaningless. Despite recent Mac market share gains, Apple cannot deny that the world runs on Windows. Presumably, the Mac install base is equally split, at best, between Snow Leopard and earlier Mac OS X versions. Remember, the Mac App Store is for Snow Leopard only, significantly reducing the real number of people who can use it. Something else: If mobile is the future, why is Apple investing so much in the PC past? Mac App Store is at best three years too late.

But the buzz, as it is with all things Apple, will make the announcement seem larger than life. The store isn't insignificant, as I explained in October, it's for now simply not as big as InterWeb gossipers and Apple cheerleaders make it out to be. The benefits as limited to Snow Leopard and iOS users and developers:

1. Applications can be made available across multiple-sized devices -- Macs, iPads, iPhones and iPod touches.

2. Developers can now scale their applications across devices.

3. Developers can sell apps for which they will be paid; the app store deters piracy.

4. Rights protection is built in so that customers aren't exposed to onerous piracy-deterring activation mechanisms.

5. The store makes applications easily available to customers and more easily searched for than scouring the Web.

Given the scope of availability, Mac App Store is more a perception builder than announcement worthy of the buzz I'm already seeing today. Big would be Ballmer unveiling a Windows application store, opening on January 5th. Such a store would reach hundreds of millions of Windows users and offer developers a reason to get excited again about desktop operating systems. Now there's a helluva perception builder.

If Ballmer focuses on tablets or Windows 8, and little else, analysts, bloggers and journalists will write, again, about visionless Microsoft poorly imitating Apple and missing out on yet another important market. Those claims would likely be made about a Windows app store, but they ultimately would be meaningless for the sheer number of people who would benefit.

Ballmer, some advice: You know what's coming. Change your keynote now. Do something better, and better means that generates some positive perceptions about Microsoft innovation and delivering something good that people can use January 6th -- not many months later.

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