Does Apple Need to Wow Us?

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Apple (Nasdaq: AAPL  ) kicked off its annual Worldwide Developer Conference in San Francisco this morning. Product marketing chief Phil Schiller gave today's keynote address, just days after The Wall Street Journal reported that CEO Steve Jobs is due to return from medical leave before the end of the month.

Oh, how we wish it were you on stage, Steve. (No slight intended to Phil.) We need you to tell us Apple is working on The Next Big Thing. But only because it will make us feel good -- not because the math demands it.

The Tao of Steve
Apple has always been a feel-good stock story. There's just something about having Jobs lead the throng that excites not only the faithful, but also investors. We expect more when he's there. We sense there will be One More Thing, a geeky surprise as fanciful as Google's (Nasdaq: GOOG  ) new "Wave" project and as functional as Microsoft's (Nasdaq: MSFT  ) new Bing search engine.

But we're not likely to get Jobs this time, and from reading the press reports, we aren't likely to be wowed. We'll see more of the 3.0 edition of the iPhone software, sure, and we're likely to see more of Snow Leopard, but we're unlikely to see any new breakthrough products. hinted at a laptop refresh -- subsequently confirmed in the actual keynote -- but that's, well, boring. So say the media reports I'm reading.

Mr. Softy playing hardball
We're seeing these panicky reports because some assert that Microsoft is gaining ground in the operating-system wars. As Apple Matters editor-in-chief Hadley Stern wrote last week:

Unless Apple is hiding something very very very big with Snow Leopard Apple is about to lose the high-ground (and bullying rights) when it comes to its operating system. The blunders of Vista were easy to pick at, picking on Windows 7 will be nitpicking at best, stupidity at worst. For all intents and purposes Snow Leopard and Windows 7 are two flavors of the same GUI.

Really? That feels like pushing it, especially when Windows 7's underlying kernel hasn't changed. Windows's infamous code baggage -- left over from the days of Windows NT -- remains in 7 as an obstacle for developers to account for or take advantage of, depending on your perspective.

Still, I can appreciate Stern's point: Most users won't care. Early reviews suggest that Windows 7 will erase bad memories of Vista by dramatically improving usability. Happy users are less likely to be interested in switching to a Mac. Thus the widespread assertion that Apple could be blowing it by not being more aggressive with OS development.

Apple isn't resting on its laurels
But this is a myth. Apple isn't being complacent -- not when it comes to the iPhone, anyway. Schiller, Jobs, and Chief Operating Officer Tim Cook realize the competitive threats they face from Palm (Nasdaq: PALM  ) and its new Pre smartphone, as well as models from Nokia (NYSE: NOK  ) , Research In Motion (Nasdaq: RIMM  ) , and even Motorola (NYSE: MOT  )

I get the sense that Apple sees computing as a wholly mobile enterprise, and it's shifting resources to make the iPhone the center of a new universe of Mac products that work elegantly anywhere. Snow Leopard may be boring, but it's a tip of the hat to this potential truth; it's supposedly lighter, cleaner, and more streamlined than earlier editions of the Mac OS.

Call it the necessary spadework to create a unified software platform that works the same everywhere. Snow Leopard is the beginning. The culmination may not come till OS 11 or later.

The math still works
In the meantime, look under the hood. Apple closed last week trading for less than 16 times earnings before interest and taxes (EBIT), when compared to enterprise value. That multiple remains well below the company’s recent levels.

Like most, I enjoy Apple at its aggressive best. I'm a shareholder and a user of its products. I'm a fan. But I'm also a realist, and the reality is this: Apple is priced reasonably, given its current position as a business.

So sit back, relax, and enjoy Schiller's keynote. Steve will be back soon enough.

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Fool contributor Tim Beyers had stock and options positions in Apple and Google and a stock position in Nokia at the time of publication. Check out Tim's portfolio holdings and Foolish writings, or connect with him on Twitter as @milehighfool. The Motley Fool is also on Twitter as @TheMotleyFool. Its disclosure policy is surprisingly wowed by the flavorful goodness of strawberry Pop Tarts.

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