Like everyone else, I knew that Apple's (NASDAQ:AAPL) final appearance at the Macworld trade show would leave the iFaithful wanting. How could it not? CEO Steve Jobs, the undisputed ringmaster of this January circus, had been sidelined by an illness.

What I didn't expect was a carnival freakshow.

What happened
Let's review yesterday's announcements.

  • New editions of iLife and iWork. Apple has upgraded iLife and iWork and will bundle these suites together with Mac OS Leopard into a "box set" for users who want the latest software. Goodies include a new version of GarageBand that embeds music lessons taught by John Fogerty and Sting, among others. The new iPhoto gets geotagging, face recognition, and support for photo sharing via Flickr and Facebook. Cool stuff.

  • A new MacBook Pro you can't afford. Next, Apple veep Phil Schiller showed off a new 17-inch MacBook Pro with a glossy display, a massive 320-gigabyte hard drive, and up to 8 gigs of memory. It's a processing monster weighing in at just 6.6 pounds.

    There's just one problem -- the price tag: $2,799. To be fair, that's the same price Apple charged for earlier versions of its 17-inch PowerBook and this Mac has a chip-controlled battery that Schiller hailed for its ability to support up to eight hours of use.

    Impressive, yes? I'll say. But the new Pro has the same problem as the iPod and iPhone -- its battery can't be removed. You'll need an Apple Store and $179 if you want to reup after the five years the battery is expected to last. Mix in a recession-ignorant price tag in a market that's increasingly taking to Dell's (NASDAQ:DELL) netbooks and this Mac looks like a sure loser.

  • ITunes goes DRM-free. Finally, the big news: Apple has wised up and stripped digital rights management software from 8 million songs in its iTunes catalog, going to 10 million by April. This isn't a freebie, though. Rather, Apple is extending its iTunes Plus program. Listeners will have to pay to upgrade -- $0.30 per song, News.com reports.

Still, I call this a win for shareholders. Amazon (NASDAQ:AMZN), Microsoft (NASDAQ:MSFT), and others have used the iTunes-music-won't-work-anywhere-but-your-iPod stick to beat up the iEmpire for years. The agreement should also deepen Apple's long-term partnerships with labels like Warner Music (NASDAQ:WMG) and Sony (NYSE:SNE) BMG, which now gets to avoid what looked to be a DRM death sentence.

Let's give Apple style points for climbing aboard the DRM train. And how about a polite golf clap for the battery breakthrough and a needed consumer software upgrade? No doubt Apple's hardware and software engineers worked hard to create these innovations.

Too bad they didn't spend more time on products that will make serious money.

Why it matters
Or maybe they did and we have yet to see the fruits of their labor. All I know is:

  • Apple didn't show off Snow Leopard, its newest version of the Mac OS.
  • Microsoft is about to roll out Windows 7 to business users who stiff-armed Vista.

EWEEK's Joe Wilcox says it best in a blog post from yesterday. "With Windows 7, Microsoft has got a new operating system rushing to release. Apple's Snow Leopard is a cat in hiding. I would feel more confident about Apple's position had something, anything, been said about Snow Leopard today," Wilcox writes.

Exactly. Snow Leopard could be the Trojan Horse Apple needs to further penetrate the enterprise. But only if it beats Windows 7 to market and creates the buzz that Apple is famous for. If not, if Mr. Mac gives mighty Mr. Softy a chance to get up off the mat, Snow Leopard will be just another pretty kitty for Mac users like me.

But the opportunity for another knockdown punch is there. Apple says that Snow Leopard is designed to support Exchange 2007 and Exchange Web Services, which, if true, would make it a lot easier to plug a Mac into a Windows-centric network of Office users.

Snow Leopard is also designed to work with Intel's (NASDAQ:INTC) multi-core processors. General users aren't likely to care much about that, but IT managers usually prize interoperability and headroom. If Snow Leopard gives Macs more network staying power, tech buyers won't be as quick to dismiss them.

So, on this issue, Wilcox is right. Apple demonstrated a bad case of clueless by failing to show Snow Leopard at Macworld. Unless, that is, plans are under way for a release party on Jan. 24 -- otherwise known as the 25th anniversary of the debut of the Mac OS.

Stay tuned.

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Fool contributor Tim Beyers is a member of the Rule Breakers stock-picking team and had stock and options positions in Apple at the time of publication.

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