Jobs tries patience with guessing game

For a gathering of media executives already shrouded in secrecy, leave it to Steve Jobs to generate even more mystery.

The 28th annual mogulfest hosted by boutique investment firm Allen & Co. kicks off today in Sun Valley, Idaho, and the Apple CEO is on the invite list. The early buzz was that Jobs would make a rare appearance at the event, but a Financial Times report last week suggested he may be a no-show.

Straight out of the Cupertino playbook — keep them guessing to the last minute.

Jobs’ relationship with the producers of content has never been more essential, so it seems likely he will be hobnobbing on the grounds of the Sun Valley resort, no doubt with more than a few iPads in hand. Apple has sold more than 3 million of the tablets since April, but Jobs needs access to more movies, TV shows, magazines and newspapers to truly make the iPad the transformational gadget he promises it can be.

Even if Jobs is absent, the iPad and how to make money on its applications promises to be one of the major themes at this year’s conference, expected to draw more than 300 executives. Some of them, like those from the hard-hit publishing sector, have even talked about the iPad in terms of being the savior of their business.

It’s not unusual for the executives, in between the usual Herb Allen-orchestrated lineup of golf games, tennis matches and rafting trips, to gnaw on a central topic. In the past few years, it’s been Twitter and social networking. Before that, content vs. distribution, globalization and, of course, year after year on “convergence,” until the moguls could barely utter the word anymore.

If the iPad kicks off cocktail chatter over the next few days, the debate over paid vs. free content can’t be too far behind.

Last week, video site Hulu clearly disappointed free proponents when it announced a $9.99 a month subscription service called Hulu Plus. Earlier in the year, the cable industry teamed up with programmers to launch TV Everywhere, which requires viewers to prove they are paying cable subscribers before they can watch shows on online.

Comcast has taken the lead and is rolling out the service across the country. More than 30 TV networks are participating and the so-called authentication online model is available to more than 20 million cable, satellite and phone subscribers.

One of the most closely observed guests at the Allen conference each year is Rupert Murdoch. In the past months, the News Corp. chairman put himself squarely in the middle of the paid vs. free ruckus, calling on all content providers to erect paywalls. In June, News Corp. invested in Journalism Online, a venture created by publishing executives Steve Brill and Gordon Crovitz to help publishers collect revenues online.

Far from New York and Hollywood, the debate in the shadows of Idaho’s Sawtooth Mountains will be lively, particularly since Allen & Co. has added more technology executives, most notably Google CEO Eric Schmidt, as regular attendees. Jobs would be latest coup on that front.

Nearly three decades after Allen & Co. created the conference initially as a retreat to spur dealmaking, the confab has taken on its own mythology. What remains unclear is whether it’s a material event for the industry, or nothing more than sleep-away camp for media executives.

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