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Macworld Expo SF 2006: Exuding Confidence

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It's instructive, I think, to mark the resurgence of Apple Computer by what happens at the annual Macworld Expo in San Francisco, both in terms of Apple's keynote announcements and the mood on the show floor. Three years ago in 2003, my Macworld Expo SF wrap-up article was titled "Apple Reduces Its Microsoft Dependency," and in 2004, the equivalent article was subtitled "Enter the Musical Trojan Horse." Last year's article? "Apple Gets Aggressive," and if there was any false bravado in Apple's attitude then, the company's record over the last few years in delivering desirable iPods and Macs supports my title this year. Over that time we've seen Apple metaphorically get to its feet, build the iPod from an overly expensive music player into the trendiest piece of consumer electronics ever, and establish itself as a force to be reckoned with in the industry. Apple has reason to be confident.

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For instance, Apple's iPod business has become so strong that Steve Jobs relayed only the most interesting numbers - 42 million iPods sold so far, 32 million of which were in 2005, and 14 million of those in the holiday quarter of the year - before introducing the only iPod-related product of the show, the $50 iPod Radio Remote. Instead, acknowledging that this was Macworld Expo, Jobs focused on iLife '06 and introduced the new Intel Core Duo-based iMac and MacBook Pro months ahead of previous expectations, all while displaying the trademark showmanship and humor that cause people to line up for hours to get a seat (don't worry if you weren't there in person; you can still watch the keynote webcast). It takes confidence to pull off a stunt like dressing Intel's CEO in a chip-fabrication bunny suit and bringing him on stage through a dramatic plume of smoke, and it certainly took confidence for Jobs to mock the rumor sites with his Super Secret Apple Rumors podcast demo. At the moment, Apple is on a roll, and while that doesn't mean everything is perfect, the companies whose fortunes are tied up with Apple are rolling alongside.

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A Full Floor -- Although Macworld Expo is nowhere near the size it was in its heyday, when it filled both the South and North Halls of the Moscone Convention Center, it's been on an upswing over the last few years. In 2004, there were 260 vendors scattered woefully throughout both halls. In 2005, IDG World Expo wised up and combined all 280 booths into the South Hall. This year once again filled only the South Hall, but it was chock full with 361 vendors. Official attendance numbers aren't yet available, but early impressions indicated that attendance would once again increase from last year's nearly 36,000 attendees. The floor felt full too - the first day is always crazy, of course, but even later in the week, my necessary dashes from meeting to meeting weren't smooth sailing.

Much of the increase was due to the preponderance of iPod-related vendors. In 2005, I commented on how many iPod-related booths there were as well: 32 all told, 14 of whom were selling iPod cases (out of a total of 280). How reasonable that all seems in light of this year, when there must have been 60 or more exhibitors showing some sort of product related to the iPod (no one had the fortitude to count them all), 49 of which sold iPod cases. Last year, Macworld Editor in Chief Jason Snell had suggested that perhaps we'd see iPod-related booths collected into the North Hall; that didn't happen, but if the expansion happens, such a thing would be possible next year.

Despite the jokes about renaming the show "iPodworld," I don't think an iPodworld could even begin to stand on its own. The simple fact of the matter is that there aren't that many categories of iPod accessory: roughly speaking, there are only cases, headphones and speakers, car chargers, FM transmitters and cassette adapters, remotes, voice recorders, and camera connectors. Within each category, most of the products are quite similar, and no matter how involved you are with your iPod, there's a limit on how many accessories you're likely to buy over the lifetime of an iPod. No, the only reason all the iPod-related exhibitors were in attendance is that Mac users are also likely to be iPod users, and in a world where many of the products really are almost identical, companies will take any chance they can get to stand out from the crowd. Even that was difficult at Macworld Expo, because there were so many iPod-related booths, and some of them had so many products, that they all blurred together quickly if you weren't paying close attention. Don't get me wrong - I enjoyed looking at all the iPod accessories, and found the number and variety of the cases tremendously amusing, but I can't recall specifics about more than a few of the vendors.

Confidence and Cold Cash -- Along with Apple's strong keynote and the increased number of exhibitors, confidence was being exuded on the show floor in more frivolous ways that we haven't seen in years. Tchotchkes - little logo-imprinted giveaways - were far more common than in the last few years, and a number of companies put more effort into dressing their employees identically, with the prize being taken by design-conscious LaCie, whose people were even wearing the same white and orange Nike Shox FSM sneakers to match the rest of their outfits.

This year also marked the return of the booth babe, a sure sign than companies have money to spend. XtremeMac, which sold iPod cases in a bewildering array of designs, placed a treadmill in their booth; apparently the point was to show that their sport cases would in fact enable an iPod to survive the rigors of being worn by attractive young women in workout attire walking briskly. One woman said she was putting in 8 miles per day, and all things considered, being paid to walk on a treadmill and listen to music for a few hours isn't a terrible job. Speaking as a competitive runner, I would have been much more impressed if they'd hired runners instead and put up a scoreboard with the cumulative distance their iPod cases had covered for the show. Another iPod case vendor whose name I forget (so much for that advertising!) had collected four attractive Asian women, dressed them as airline attendants, and had them walk around the show floor with rolling luggage. And Tonya claimed she saw a booth dude somewhere, though once again, she hadn't the least recollection of the details. Much as we'd prefer to see more clever ways of attracting attendees to a booth (like the fresh cookies at the Circus Ponies booth or the SketchUp demos at the Last Software booth, which provided fruit smoothies and hot pretzels), the fact that exhibitors are once again spending money on booth babes is indicative of the upbeat mood.

Focus on San Francisco -- With Macworld Boston cancelled, even more attention was focused on the San Francisco show this year, and I expect that will be even more true next year, as companies with products that are best shown in person take the best chance to do so. Overall, I think it's the right move for the moment, since as the Macintosh industry rebounds, it makes sense to focus on a single important show and make it even more of a touchstone for the community. Until next year...

 

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