It was the best of expos, it was the worst of expos.
With apologies to Charles Dickens, this year's Macworld Expo in New York City was a truly odd show. Expectations of new Macs ran high based both on rumors and on analysis of Apple's current products and release cycles. Equally anticipated was a significant feature update to Mac OS X. But the much-awaited Steve Jobs keynote on the first morning felt cobbled together at the last moment and showed more forward momentum than shipping products. Moving from the keynote to the show floor quickly revealed to me that the show floor was smaller than last year. Put these two facts together and you have what would seem to be the start of a dismal Macworld Expo.
As with all journalists, I was already writing bits of this article in my head, tying a mediocre show to the industry downturn, to Apple's inability to ship Mac OS X 10.1, to the error-marred keynote. Then I noticed that walking through the aisles was proving difficult due to the throngs of Mac users. And then, as with the Scrooge-like Grinch who hears the singing of all the Whos down in Whoville even after he's stolen all their Christmas fixings, I gradually realized that this crowd was not only large, it was happy. Clearly it was too early to call the show, so I put my musings aside and wandered the floor.
By the end of the second morning, I'd determined that not only were there fewer square feet of exhibitors, there weren't any breakthrough products for the mainstream Macintosh audience. Grinch-like phrasings started to rattle around in my head again, but then I started to ask all the exhibitors I knew how the show was going. It's a standard question that I ask of everyone I meet after the first day, but I was utterly astonished to hear the enthusiastic responses. The exhibitors with whom I spoke were, without exception, happy, and some of them were wildly happy. Those selling products said sales were good or even great, and Neil Ticktin of DevDepot said they sold a t-shirt every 22 seconds during the first day. Attendance dropped off the second and third days (due in part to the drab keynote, which would otherwise have drawn in more New Yorkers), but in the end, it seems that slightly more people came to this Macworld Expo than last year's show.
So, despite the disappointing keynote, paucity of exhibitors, and lack of any must-have products, people attended in droves, and the exhibitors were pleased with the results. Weird, truly weird. Let's look at each of these in more depth.
A Keynote to Forget -- Macworld keynote addresses since Steve Jobs returned to Apple have been extravaganzas. We've seen Phil Schiller jump from a 30-foot platform to demonstrate AirPort networking on the just-introduced iBook, and we've seen Apple Pro mice stuck to the bottom of all the chairs in the main hall of the keynote. We've seen products like the Power Mac G4 Cube and the PowerBook G4 Titanium released to huge fanfare. Jobs has become famous for his "And one more thing..." phrase that introduces the surprise product for the keynote. Compared to that stellar past, this keynote was lame, though still far better than the average trade show keynote.
Jobs led off with video footage from the opening of the Apple stores in McLean, Virginia and Los Angeles, California and then said Apple plans to open 4 more stores in August (in Dallas, Minneapolis, Chicago, and Boston), and follow that with more openings to bring the total to 25 by year-end. Although Apple believes the stores will break even by the end of this year, the president of a retail consulting firm was quoted in the New York Times as saying that Apple's approach was completely flawed and that the stores would shut down after two years of huge losses. Although initial traffic at the Apple stores was incredibly high, Jobs didn't provide any sales numbers for the stores in their first eight weeks.
Next up was Apple's industry dog-and-pony show "10 on X" that Apple hoped would make clear the level to which Macintosh developers are creating Mac OS X-based software. It was an important show of support, featuring Microsoft (Office and Internet Explorer), Adobe (Illustrator, GoLive, and InDesign), Quark, FileMaker, Connectix (Virtual PC), IBM (ViaVoice), World Book (2002 World Book Encyclopedia), Blizzard Entertainment (WarCraft III), Aspyr (Tony Hawk's Pro Skater 2), and Alias|Wavefront (Maya) showcasing their products. There's no arguing with Apple's choices of who to show, since these ten companies covered much of the overall Macintosh market. But only two of the products shown were actually shipping: the 2002 World Book Encyclopedia and Aspyr's Tony Hawk's Pro Skater 2, neither of which seem to use Mac OS X in an interesting fashion. All the others are slated for later this year.
Although it too isn't scheduled to ship for a few more months, the first program shown, Microsoft Office 10, will be the key to Mac OS X's success. Without the popular suite of Word, Excel, PowerPoint, and Entourage running native on Mac OS X, most business users would face a significant barrier to adoption. Microsoft is even giving Apple a boost by putting Office 2001 into maintenance mode and concentrating all future development on the Mac OS X-only Office 10. I'll look at the changes in Office 10 more closely in a future issue.
After the demonstrations, Jobs enthusiastically launched into showing the new features in Mac OS X 10.1, and from first glance, it appears that it addresses many of the glaring holes and problems in the current version of Mac OS X. We'll write more about Mac OS X 10.1 in next week's issue, but suffice to say, the changes, if not the September ship date, were well received.
The new hardware announcements that followed the Mac OS X 10.1 demo didn't rate the same enthusiasm (although the announcement that the new iBook (Dual USB) had sold a record 182,000 units in only two months garnered huge applause). The speed-bumped iMacs rated just a few minutes from Jobs, and they deserved no more. More solid were the new Power Mac G4s, which offered a minor front panel redesign and significantly improved performance at the same price points. Although these upgrades aren't inherently interesting, they offer a fabulous price for performance ratio.
What would an announcement of fast Macs be without a comparison with the top-of-the-line Pentium-based computer running Windows? Refreshing, since the canned comparisons are dull and wasted time in an already long keynote. People don't buy the Mac based on performance, and although it's fine to show that the fastest PowerPC chips are no slouches, it's time to let these comparisons die. If the comparisons were predictable (Jobs trots out Phil Schiller, they banter about how they had trouble even buying the Pentium, they run the Photoshop filters, the Mac finishes first), this year's lesson in chip architecture from Apple hardware chief Jon Rubinstein was inexplicable. In an attempt to show that clock speed isn't the only thing that makes a processor fast, he talked the audience through an animation of how more pipeline stages (the PowerPC G4 has 7, the Pentium 4 has 20) can significantly reduce performance. He's right of course, and his demonstration was well done, short of the fact that the longer pipeline representing the Pentium 4 wasn't running twice as fast to show the faster clock speed. But who cares? Chip performance is a highly complex issue, and no one who believes that clock speed is all that matters will be convinced otherwise by such a demonstration from Apple.
Last, but not least, was a preview of iDVD 2, which adds motion menus, new themes (some of which featured background animations), a soundtrack option for still image slideshows, background encoding, support for 90 minute DVDs (up from 60 minutes currently), and support for Mac OS X. Like so much else, it's due in September, and will be a free upgrade.
At the very end, there was even tacit admission of Apple's desire to have more to present. To show that Apple hasn't exactly been goofing off, Jobs flipped through slides of all the software and hardware releases Apple has had this year. He then asked the audience to give a round of applause for the hard-working Apple employees, and then another for the families of those employees. Though it's unlikely that many family members were watching the keynote to appreciate the gesture, it was still welcome recognition for the effect 80-hour work weeks have on families.
Missing Exhibitors -- There was no question that the show floor sported less booth space than in past years. A number of mainstays of the Macintosh industry weren't in attendance at all, most notably Adobe and Casady & Greene, and others had smaller booths than in previous years. Then there was Smith Micro, the makers of FAXstf. They had a fair amount of space, but it was occupied only by a banner hanging from the cavernous Javits ceiling, a wire snaking down from the rafters, and a couple of plain tables. The whole thing just screamed "cost-cutting!"
Companies chose to stay away for two basic reasons. The most important is the industry downturn. New York is expensive and my guess is that for a company like Adobe, the cost of a large space; the booth and related equipment; and the airfare, hotel, food, and salaries for the necessary staff could easily run into the hundreds of thousands of dollars. Most companies are tightening the purse strings these days and even though Adobe in particular has fared relatively well, that kind of money might be better spent elsewhere, such as on traditional advertising that's both cheaper and more effective with the loss of many Internet advertisers.
The second reason - the transition to Mac OS X - is related to the first. It's one thing to spend marketing money on a trade show in hard economic times, but it's another to spend that money when you don't have much Mac OS X-specific software to demo. Other than a few games, Casady & Greene doesn't have any Mac OS X software, and given the expectation that this would be the big Mac OS X show, it's easy to understand their decision to stay home. By that reasoning, Macworld Expo in San Francisco this coming January should be huge, since Mac OS X 10.1 will be out and many more companies will have their Mac OS X versions done.
No Killer Products -- I was depressed to go the entire show without seeing anything that I found truly impressive. There were a few welcome Mac OS X versions, such as QuicKeys for Mac OS X from CE Software and Virtual PC for Mac OS X from Connectix. But as useful and necessary as those programs are, they don't introduce particularly new functionality to the Mac world. On the hardware side, the usual crop of high-quality printers and cameras and camcorders may not have been surprising, but they at least made for good browsing. I remain particularly impressed with Canon's PowerShot S110 and S300 Digital Elph cameras for snapshots (the S300 has a 3x optical zoom and a larger body). The most interesting devices were Griffin Technology's sleek PowerMate USB volume controller and PowerWave USB audio adapter, which provides high-quality audio recording and playback through a built-in amplifier so you can connect normal stereo speakers to your Mac. They weren't shipping at the show, but almost everyone with whom I talked mentioned them, along with the P5 glove controller from Essential Reality.
There were a few companies with products that were present only because Mac OS X provides a Unix core on top of which they can run, such as Memora for the Mac, a home server for email, digital photos, and music that runs on top of Mac OS X. But on the whole, Mac OS X has caused a pause in the level of innovation on the Mac. To be fair, innovation has fallen off a good bit over the past few years anyway, so my hope is that after programmers come up to speed on what Mac OS X makes possible and move their existing software over, we'll see functionality from our Macs that wasn't possible before Mac OS X.
Droves of Attendees -- Attendance at Macworld Expo was at the same levels or above those of last year, when Apple and the entire Macintosh industry was still doing extremely well. That's surprising enough in its own right, but a number of exhibitors commented that last month's PC Expo (also at the Javits Convention Center) was nowhere nearly as heavily attended. So not only did people come to Macworld, they did so in the face of industry conditions that caused a similar trade show in the same location to suffer significant attendance loss.
As I've noted before, Apple's fortunes aren't completely related to the rest of the computer industry because Macintosh purchases are more individual than corporate decisions. My current theory is that attendance at Macworld Expo is a roughly similar decision, and lots of people were curious to see Mac OS X and software that would run on it. Although Mac OS X 10.1 didn't make it out for Macworld Expo, almost none of the attendees with whom I spoke were running Mac OS X as their primary operating system, and as such they didn't seem concerned about the additional wait.
Even more important was that everyone seemed upbeat, and even when they'd seen the keynote, they didn't seem perturbed by the unspectacular present or unknown future. Perhaps it's just that Macworld Expo is the semi-annual gathering of what is essentially the Macintosh fan club, and the clear forward momentum on Apple's part made up for the lack of major announcements.
Happy Exhibitors -- The fact that all of the exhibitors I spoke with ranged from happy to ecstatic about the response from attendees was what surprised me the most. It costs a lot to exhibit in New York, and exhibitors are sensitive to the value of presence versus the hard costs of showing up.
The sheer number of attendees helped a great deal, since there's nothing like a crowd of people taking promotional materials to make an exhibitor smile. The folks at CE Software said they ran out of CDs on the first morning and had to rush another batch in for the next day. But these weren't just any attendees, these were the Macintosh faithful. Rich Brown of Dartware (the company spun out of Dartmouth to develop the network utilities InterMapper, MacPing, and SNMP Watcher) said he'd been mobbed by InterMapper fans on the first day, not necessarily a common experience for someone making fairly technical networking utilities.
But what really warms an exhibitor's heart is sales, and from what I can tell, sales went extremely well. Peachpit was selling lots of books despite a slowdown in overall book sales, and the cashiers at DevDepot were mobbed whenever I walked by. There's undoubtedly an aspect of being able to see and touch Macintosh products in person, something that's relatively difficult in most places (hence Apple's rationale behind the new Apple stores). But that's been true for years, and I simply don't know why people were more willing to spend money this year than in previous years. Perhaps it was the pricing: I know I was sorely tempted by a 100 GB FireWire hard disk and a 256 MB Compact Flash card, neither of which I really need, but both of which seemed cheap. RAM in particular was amazingly inexpensive, with one company advertising a 512 MB DIMM for $140, which I thought was low until I checked a couple of Internet price comparison sites such as the new and well-designed dealram. (I'm hearing that RAM is at a low right now due to a glut on the market, but because some production lines have been shut down to reduce supply and because the release of Windows XP in a few months will likely increase demand, prices will likely go up again soon.)
In the end, even if I don't really know why this particular Macworld Expo was so upbeat, I'm not going to complain about it. Perception is powerful, as we've seen so many times with human interfaces, and if the perception of the state of the Macintosh is positive, that goes a long way toward creating a self-fulfilling prophecy that serves us all well.