It is tempting to see, when faced with a decline for the quantitative attendance numbers for a conference, some larger trend or lurking bogeyman. Such an explanation would be appropriate for the thinning of the herd at the just-passed Macworld Expo in Boston, nominally hampered by the refusal of Apple and other large companies to exhibit. In reality, it is not difficult to understand Apple's stance: this second of two major trade shows creates an artificial and potentially troubling product release deadline, forces the company to cede some level of control over any announcements, and does not particularly serve the goal of introducing the Macintosh and iPod to new customers. Ironically, with the recent releases of AirPort Express, the current crop of large monitors, and the Click Wheel iPod, Apple would have had plenty of announcement fodder for Macworld Expo, but at this point, Apple doesn't need the customer clumping of a trade show to gain media attention for such announcements. In addition, the Apple Stores meet the goal of introducing potential Macintosh and iPod users to their new digital buddies.
All that explains the drastic drop in attendance for Boston's Macworld Expo. But there are no such sweeping explanations for the small number of attendees at last week's ADHOC - the Advanced Developer Hands On Conference - previously known, of course, as MacHack. In the past, MacHack has never been a particularly large conference, maxing out under 500 attendees, but attendance this year was notably sparse, with roughly 100 developers present. It's not as though there are that many fewer developers out there, and although Apple had almost no presence at ADHOC, there hasn't been much of an official Apple contingent for some years.
No, the explanation is simply that ADHOC's committee of volunteers never managed to do much of the necessary marketing to introduce the conference to people who hadn't attended in the past. Also problematic was the name change and a new date that moved the conference a month later to escape the heavy tread of Apple's Worldwide Developer Conference (for which attendance is nearly mandatory if you're a Macintosh developer). The new date fell right after Macworld Expo and at the same time as a Digital Design conference in Seattle that lured at least one long-time MacHack regular away (PDF expert Leonard Rosenthol couldn't turn down the offer of being paid to talk in Seattle - a financial and geographical win over paying to attend ADHOC in the charmless Dearborn, Michigan).
In essence, though, the problem lies with the fact that the people who market the conference - the volunteer committee of attendees - have no financial interest in the conference itself. That interest lies with Expotech, a small conference organizing company that has always handled all the logistics for MacHack (actually, given their lengthy relationship with the conference, everyone at MacHack thinks of Expotech as Carol Lynn and Maurita Plouff and their increasingly grown-up daughters,). And while the committee's attendance goal - attracting like-minded geeks to network with - is admirable, decoupling it from the goal of turning a profit results in a marketing approach that tends toward the haphazard.
Although this year's reduced attendance is undoubtedly troubling and will hopefully result in renewed efforts on the part of this year's committee, it didn't seem to make a qualitative difference. Yes, there were fewer people to talk with in the hotel lobby, and there were fewer sessions and papers, and we weren't able to take over an entire theater for the annual movie screening (thus eliminating the opportunity for group heckling of "I, Robot"), but the conference retained its full sense of utility and fun. The sessions I attended, such as James Goebbel's session on Extreme Project Management and the Hardware Technical Trends talk from Chad Magendanz, were extremely valuable. And I'm not even a developer! I hope in the future to see more business-oriented sessions (such as my Hacking the Press session, and one I wasn't able to attend on using eSellerate by Josh Ferguson). That would make the conference more attractive to other types of highly technical users and executives.
There was some concern that ADHOC wouldn't really be MacHack, particularly because the always notable MacHax Group's Best Hack Contest was replaced by the ADHOC Showcase, featuring "demos" that attendees later voted on with fake investment capital. However, the change in name wasn't accompanied by more sweeping changes, and as much as the new organizers of the ADHOC Showcase tried to set themselves apart from the 17 years of the Best Hack Contest, everyone found it difficult to break from the old terms and traditions. Nonetheless, despite some presentation mishaps, everyone had a good time and the lowered attendance meant that it was possible to get to bed by 2 AM instead of 5 AM.
In short then, whatever that elusive thing that set MacHack apart from every other conference was, ADHOC had it. The familiar faces were there, the sessions were good, the demos were amusing, and this year I managed to hook up with the group making the annual pilgrimage to Zingerman's, an absolutely stunning deli in Ann Arbor. Although ex-Mac OS 9 technical lead Keith Stattenfield wasn't able to attend, he and some other Apple programmers joined us via iChat AV (projected for the entire room) for a couple of hours of humorous dissection of the movie "I, Robot." Rather than attempt to describe an event for which you almost certainly had to be there, you can see some short movies I took with my Canon PowerShot S400 of the festivities. (Three warnings: the movies make the most sense if you have seen "I, Robot" already; you should watch them in order; and they're about 100 MB combined, so don't even try unless you have a high-speed Internet connection.)
ADHOC Showcase Top Demos -- Even if the ADHOC Showcase wasn't the full-metal straitjacket experience of the MacHax Best Hack Contest, a number of the demos were still highly amusing. I hosted a SubEthaEdit document for notes, and a number of people who couldn't be at the conference joined via the Internet as well. Here then are the top five demos, the first three of which actually tied for 3rd (or 5th, if you prefer).
Lisa Lippincott showed off Scroll Plate, which involved a program that used an iSight to do color recognition, scrolling the document up or down based on the color of an arrow (drawn on a plate) in the iSight's field of view. Some devices have scroll wheels; now we have a scroll plate!
Wolf Rentzsch developed EtherPEG Cocoa, which was a port of a previous year's hack, EtherPEG, to Cocoa. EtherPEG displays images being transferred across an unencrypted Wi-Fi network; Wolf enhanced it by making the images appear in order instead of randomly. He would have done more, but while testing, someone started using Google Image Search, and thus they developed a new game that took the rest of their time. One person would do a search and the other would watch the images and try to guess the search terms. Who knows, maybe it will become the next game craze to sweep the nation.
Adam Goldstein, a student, wrote ExposeHopper, a game in which you invoke Expose, then navigate your player from window to window in an attempt to collect the checkmarks in the corners. The trick is that moving between windows causes your player to disappear in a puff of Dock smoke.
In second place was Mike Zornek's demo, The MegaMan Effect, which replaced the standard icon bouncing animation of an application launching with a full screen animation of the icon zooming through a star field, taken from a cheesy video game from years ago.
Lastly, winning the first ADHOC Showcase was Jorg Brown's Unsummarize, a clever bit of code that takes a short sentence or phrase and "expands" it in the reverse of the way Apple's Summarize service works (select text in a Services-aware application then choose Services > Summarize from the application menu). Unsummarize works (perhaps with some smoke and mirrors for the demo) by performing a Web search using the selected text and using the search results as the expansion. Jorg got the idea for Unsummarize from a joke David Pogue made during the ADHOC keynote about how Summarize was cool, but he'd really like something that went the other direction so the Mac could write his articles for him.
I hope the ADHOC committee will figure out a way to make these and other demos available to the public, as has been done in the past by the MacHax Group.
Conference Rating -- ADHOC is, as you've gathered, an extremely unusual conference whose 18 years as MacHack colors every aspect of the experience. That undoubtedly skews my conference rating system somewhat. I won't attempt to rate ADHOC as an exhibitor (since there aren't any). In terms of speaker ratings, I'll note merely that there's no payment, no moderators, and fairly confused logistics, but all that is sort of beside the point, since speaking at ADHOC is something one does to contribute to the community - it's a peer-to-peer event. And from the press perspective, it makes no sense to have a press room, nor is there ever much in the way of a news event (short of the results of the Hack Contest/ADHOC Showcase), but neither is important in the context of the conference (and the logistics are really easy). As for my rating of the conference as an attendee, here goes:
Cost/value. ADHOC is about as cheap a conference as you'll find, with prices ranging from $325 for a speaker who registers early to $550 for a normal attendee who registers at the last minute. High school and college students pay only $50, and anyone who has a paper accepted by the paper committee gets free admission. The hotel costs about $120 per night, but many people share rooms and split the cost. Flying to Detroit is relatively easy and can be cheap, since it's a Northwest Airlines hub. +1 point.
Time/place. ADHOC is intentionally in a somewhat odd place in part to avoid attendees wanting to leave the hotel, and the hotel itself is part of the tradition of the conference at this point. (The big question is, in my running joke of hacking the hotel, will my four-foot wooden stake be found this year, after it survived all of last year in the lobby in plain sight, staking up one of the plants? See the links below for the entire story of the stake.) The timing for the conference was mediocre this year, coming as it did in such close proximity to so many other conferences. 0 points.
Logistics. Expotech makes the logistics surrounding ADHOC simple, and the fact that they've been exactly the same for years helps. The main oddity for newcomers is remembering that when booking tickets, even though the conference nominally runs from a Thursday through Saturday, the keynote is really Wednesday night and things don't end until early in the morning on Sunday. +1 point.
Breadth and depth of exhibitors. There are no exhibitors, though a few companies sponsor different aspects of the conference, including Bare Bones, Nvidia, O'Reilly, QuickSilver, Speakeasy, and well, us (to help promote our Take Control ebooks we donated some money to buy fruit for the snack room). 0 points.
Product support. If someone with a company you need help from is in attendance, it's easy to find some time to get one-on-one support. I had an extremely helpful talk with eSellerate's Josh Ferguson, for instance, that helped make the conference even more worthwhile. +1 point.
Session Quality. Although I can't rate the quality of the developer-specific sessions, all the others I attended were top-notch. +1 point.
Keynote. MacHack keynotes are legendary events that start at midnight and continue for hours, with well known speakers such as Ted Nelson, John Warnock, Steve Wozniak, Andy Ihnatko, and numerous others. This year's lead-off keynote at ADHOC was ably given by David Pogue, who initially seemed a little shocked by the extreme level of interactivity traditionally shown by the audience. But David rolled with it, and quickly drew everyone in with his witty song parodies and jokes. His Panther tips were a challenge to members of the audience, which tried (successfully on a number of occasions) to tell David things he didn't know. The second night's keynote (also at midnight) was delivered by Apple's Steve Hayman, substituting for an ill Jordan Hubbard. Steve drew on his experience with Apple's large education installations (the places that have thousands of iBooks in school systems) and years of working with Unix to give a talk that was both hilarious and useful, in that he showed how simple it was to use development tools like AppleScript Studio to marry a graphical interface and a command line utility. +2 points.
Free wireless Internet access. Although it has long been commonplace for MacHack to offer free wireless Internet access, this year was notable for its lack of networking problems. Steve Yuhasz, who always runs the network, may have dodged some of them by requiring that everyone sign up for a static IP number, thus eliminating any confusion about who would be responsible for network problems. So the network access was flawless this year, and the T-1 donated by Speakeasy worked well other than a few hours of emergency maintenance time. And although the conference didn't specifically coordinate SubEthaEdit notetaking, I ran it during the ADHOC Showcase, and a number of people asked for my notes afterwards. +1 point.
Great deals. Short of the 50 percent off any Take Control order we gave attendees, there weren't any other deals I was aware of this year. 0 points.
Freebies. There were tons, and it seemed that everyone went home with books from O'Reilly, a wide variety of t-shirts, mugs, and stickers. The big prizes came from Nvidia, which raffled off a number of high-end video cards. +1 point.
Snacks. ADHOC provides not only snacks and a constant supply of drinks but two lunches, a brunch, several pizza dinners, a banquet dinner, and an ice cream social. The snacks and drinks have tended toward serious junk food, which was why we donated money for fruit, but there was no reason to go hungry. My only complaint was that hotel food this year was below the standard of last year, and decidedly sub-par. +1 point.
Fun. It's almost impossible to convey how much fun people have at ADHOC, but suffice to say that there are people who use vacation time to come each year. To be fair, the conference might be less fun for people who have trouble interacting socially with geeks, but my experience as a non-programmer was still stellar. +2 points.
Community. The entire point of ADHOC is community, and the hotel lobby is always occupied by attendees working on their hacks or just hanging out and talking. Deals are made, relationships are cemented, and the standard farewell is, "See you next year, if not before." Younger attendees aren't just tolerated, they're welcomed and encouraged, and perhaps the only negative I could think of in this category is that it would be nice if more women attended. This year was no different. +2 points.
I'd like to reiterate that these ratings should not be compared to those I gave Macworld Expo recently; to do so would be to compare apples and oranges. I hope the ratings give you a sense of whether you'd like to attend next year; I'll certainly be there. And for those regular attendees who skipped this year, we missed you, but it was definitely your loss. See you all next year, if not before!