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Few things, in today’s business world, are as cult-like as a Steve Jobs keynote address at Macworld. (Warren Buffett’s annual shareholder gathering might come close.) So when Jobs came onstage, unannounced, this morning at the Moscone Center in San Francisco, the applause was thunderous. The audience cheered when Jobs mentioned Apple’s fourth quarter revenues (a record $5.7 billion) and its 83 percent market share of legal music downloads. A lot more was in store...

Jobs was wearing his trademark black turtleneck, jeans, and sneakers. He began by touting Apple’s chain of 135 retail stores as one of the best experiences in the world of retail. Twenty-six million people visited the stores during the holiday quarter, Jobs said. "That was pretty amazing. What was also amazing was that our retail stores had their first billion-dollar quarter."

Jobs rattled off some other stats: 14 million iPods sold in the holiday quarter (compared to 4.5 million a year earlier); 8 million videos sold through iTunes since October 12, when videos were first offered.

"Last week, for the first time, we added some sports," he said. In a partnership with ABC and ESPN, Apple offered 15-minute condensed versions of the college bowl games. (The Rose Bowl rocketed to the Number One spot on Apple’s most-popular video list.) There’s more applause when Jobs says iTunes is also adding content from Saturday Night Live, like classic John Belushi skits ("Samurai Delicatessen" and Blues Brothers songs) and the Coneheads.

Jobs introduced a cool new accessory for the iPod. For $49, you can now buy a remote control that also serves as an FM tuner. (What about AM? Or satellite?) When it’s connected to an iPod, a "Radio" menu item suddenly shows up on the main screen; as usual with Apple, design simplicity is paramount. But the remote/tuner seems a bit over-priced to me.

He noted that Chrysler is the first of the Big Three American carmakers to announce "major iPod integration support for their cars." According to Jobs, in 2006, over 40 percent of all cars sold in the U.S. will offer iPod integration as an option.

Jobs then segued into a series of smaller "reveals" – Aperture software for serious photographers; desktop mini-applications called "widgets" that deliver ski conditions or sports results; a new version of Apple’s iLife software for creating and sharing music, photos, videos, and blogs. The company’s new iWeb software simplifies the process of publishing a Web site – complete with photo albums, audio podcasts, and blogs. (It’s part of the $79 iLife suite of software.)

But the big announcement today were the first iMacs to use Intel processors, which start shipping today. (Apple is shifting away from IBM’s PowerPC chips.) "How do we make something this good even better?" Jobs asks. The new iMac is two to three times faster than the previous iMac – for the same price. It uses Intel’s new "Core Duo" dual processor chip. Jobs notes that Apple’s new software will be "universal" – it’ll run run on computers with PowerPC or Intel chips – and says that the iMac he has been using today is, in fact, built with the Intel chip. (The new iMacs will also include software cleverly-named Rosetta, which will ensure that all software made by other companies – like Microsoft – will work on its new Intel-based computers.)

Jobs previewed a television ad that tweaks the world of Windows/Intel PCs. The gist: to date, Intel chips have been trapped inside "dull little boxes," performing mundane tasks. Intel workers are seen in a clean room, handling silicon wafers. Voice-over: "Starting today, the Intel chip will be set free – and get to live life inside a Mac. Imagine the possibilities." Deafening applause.

Jobs is famous for saying, "And one more thing," before he wraps up his keynotes. That’s usually the sign that he’s about to pull the wraps of the company’s biggest new product. This time, it’s a new laptop, the MacBook Pro, which is 4.5-5x faster than the current generation of PowerBook G4s. (It also uses the new Intel dual-processor chip.) It’s the fastest and thinnest Mac notebook ever, Jobs said. It also has an iSight camera built in, for videoconferencing. An Apple exec sitting in the audience demos it, in a short videoconference with Jobs, using a wireless network.

Probably the cleverest design innovation on these new MacBooks solves a problem that I had last month: when someone trips on your power cord, the notebook goes flying off the desk. The MacBook has a power cord that connects magnetically, so if someone yanks on it, it detaches easily, without taking the laptop with it.

So how is it that Apple gets its customers (and the media) to pay such rapt attention to new product announcements? Over a quarter-century, Jobs has cultivated a Willie Wonka-esque reputation for consistently delivering cool stuff, in a showy, dramatic way. (Today, Intel CEO Paul Otellini appeared in a plume of smoke, wearing a white "bunny suit" and carrying a shiny silicon wafer.) The company has an Iron Curtain strategy when it comes to dealing with the media – no interviews or announcements until we’re ready. Most products, when they’re announced, show up quickly in stores – this is a company that doesn’t often make "vaporware" announcement months or years ahead of time. (The lone exception today was the MacBook, which starts shipping in February.) The company also has lately been putting video versions of Jobs’ talks up on its Web site shortly after they take place; that lets anyone who’s interested feel like they’re part of the excitement.

(I’ve got a bit more about Apple’s iMovie and iDVD software on my blog, CinemaTech – and will post tomorrow about some of the sessions related to digital media.)