In the years that I've been a professional Mac geek, I've attended Macworld an untold number of times - in San Francisco, Boston, and New York. In fact, for part of the time I was living in San Francisco, my apartment was within walking distance of Moscone Center, so I could just saunter down the road whenever a big Apple event came to town. Even events in Cupertino were not hard to reach. Now, living in Paris, I've traded proximity to Apple for a view of the Eiffel Tower (that is trading up, in case you were wondering). But I was happy to discover that I could still get my annual Mac trade show fix by going to Apple Expo, which this year ran from 25-Sep-07 to 29-Sep-07. I attended the show for a few hours on each of three days, enough to get a clear sense of what it was like. If you've ever wondered what a big Apple convention in France might look like, allow me to give you a small taste.
Mac(world) mini -- My first clue that this expo might be on a somewhat smaller scale than Macworld came when I signed up online a few weeks ago. Entrance was free, though I would have had to pay 12 euros (about $17) if I'd shown up without a pre-registration form - and that was for the entire conference. (By contrast, a Platinum Pass to see every last bit of Macworld Expo runs as high as $1,895.) Not that I'm complaining, of course.
I took the métro to the outskirts of town where the conference is held - about a half hour's ride from my apartment. Sure enough, there was the gigantic Apple Expo sign on the front of the convention center. In the parking lot were cars, scooters, and motorcycles with Apple logos on them, and folks handing out flyers about this and the other Mac product.
Once I converted my pre-registration form into a badge, I walked into the exhibit hall (stopping for a barcode scan on the way in). The very first thing I saw was a Macally booth, much like the ones I've seen countless times at Macworld. My wife, Morgen, was with me the first day, and we decided we'd methodically tackle the big room by walking slowly up and down each aisle, stopping as needed at any intriguing booths, until we saw everything of interest. Including a break for lunch, that took us only 2 hours.
Although the room had looked big at first, by the time we walked through it we realized it was considerably smaller than the larger exhibit hall at Moscone. And that single room was the entire expo. No keynote speeches, classes, seminars, or symposiums going on in other rooms - just the vendors' exhibits. Apple did offer a series of daily workshops on topics ranging from iLife to Logic Pro, and some of the exhibitors (such as Quark and Adobe) had periodic hands-on, classroom-style training sessions in their booths, which also happens at Macworld. But I'm just saying: it was an expo, not a conference.
As someone who has seen most of these products many times before, I found the exhibits unexciting for the most part. But the majority of the attendees seemed to be quite enthusiastic. The aisles were packed, and although I haven't heard attendance estimates, vendors I spoke to felt that the show was a rousing success, and nearly every booth had a constant mob of people looking at whatever product was being shown.
Apple, naturally, had a large booth, at which they highlighted the new iPods, iLife '08, iWork '08, and the new aluminum iMacs. A separate large booth was devoted to the Apple Store - currently in France, Apple has only an online store and no physical retail stores, though there have been rumors that one is planned. A few other resellers also had booths where computers, accessories, and software were on sale. The rest of the show floor had an assortment of vendors from all over the world - lots of American companies, lots of French companies (including several I'd never heard of before), and a few from Asia and elsewhere in Europe.
Numerous booths were showing (and even selling) accessories for the iPhone, despite the fact that iPhones are not yet shipping in France (in fact, Apple has not even announced a shipping date or pricing details yet). One vendor told me that lots of eager Europeans have been buying iPhones on eBay or from other sources in the United States, presumably using one of the numerous unlocking hacks in order to operate them on one of the regional carriers here with an existing SIM card.
Most of the signs, software, and demonstrations were in French, which is as it should be. A few booths - Apple's included - had all their signs in English only, which struck me as rather odd. Nevertheless, there were quite a few Americans and Britons on the show floor, both as exhibitors and as attendees, and most of the people there appeared to have some facility in English as well as French. Some American companies without their own French employees hired locals to work the booths and give product demos in French. (Side note: We saw very few women at the show who were not vendors or "booth babes"; in fact, when Morgen walked in, the guy at the door scanned her badge and, without looking up, said, "Bonjour, monsieur." He was embarrassed when he realized his mistake, but who could have predicted an actual female attendee?)
You Know You're in Another Country When... -- Apart from the fact that the room was filled with "ordinateurs" instead of "computers," Apple Expo seemed, superficially, to be just like any other trade show I've been to. But every once in a while we saw something that made us smile or grimace, indicating that we were clearly in a place where different rules apply.
We smiled, for example, when we went to one of the snack stands for lunch. The sandwiches were made with freshly baked baguettes and were priced no higher than what we'd have paid at any sidewalk café; the coffee was real coffee. Yes, the French take lunch seriously, even at a convention center.
We grimaced (well, more like gasped) when we saw the huge backdrop for the Crumpler Bags booth. Needless to say, you would never, ever see an image like this at an American trade show. The sign reads (in English) "Crumpler Makes You Sexy." Although a couple of people's heads (thankfully) obscure part of the photo, it depicts a man entirely naked except for a helmet - and a laptop case that he seems inordinately fond of.
Oh, and Some New Products Too -- In the past, Steve Jobs has sometimes shown up at Apple Expo to give a keynote speech and make product introductions, but not this year. A few companies chose to roll out new products at the expo, though compared to the usual long list of announcements at a January Macworld Expo, this list is rather brief. The most interesting new product announcements were the following:
- Aquafadas Products: Aquafadas is best known for a hard-to-describe program called PulpMotion. If you imagine the sorts of slideshows iPhoto creates, and make them fancier and more elaborate by an order of magnitude, that begins to approach what PulpMotion offers. At the show, Aquafadas demonstrated BannerZest, which is somewhat like PulpMotion except that instead of saving its slideshows as QuickTime movies or packaged in a stand-alone player, it converts them to Flash animations for inclusion on a Web page (and integrates easily with the new version of iWeb). BannerZest goes on sale in October for 29 euros. Also demonstrated were VideoPier (39 euros), which provides iLife compatibility for certain MPEG-2 camcorders that would otherwise be unsupported, and a Pro version of PulpMotion (129 euros), which adds greater levels of control and flexibility. Although PulpMotion Pro and BannerZest aren't yet shipping, Aquafadas is offering special Apple Expo prices through next week on pre-orders of either of two bundles, which also include their iDive video cataloguing software. Note that the page showing the discounted bundles is in French only.
- EyeTV 2.5: Elgato Systems was demonstrating the new version of EyeTV, which can now stream video from your Mac's add-on tuner to an iPhone or an iPod touch over Wi-Fi. The new Apple toys weren't on public display, but an Elgato rep kindly offered to show them to me in a back room. I was quite impressed by what I saw - perfectly smooth video on pocket iGadgets, streamed wirelessly. (Yeah, gotta get me one of those. Soon, I hope.) I asked whether the streaming was limited to local Wi-Fi networks or whether EyeTV could do the Slingbox trick of streaming video remotely over the Internet too. Short answer: it can be done - I saw video streaming from an EyeTV-equipped Mac in Munich to an iPhone in Paris. Though this sort of feature is not officially supported or endorsed, sufficiently geeky and motivated people should be able to discover the relevant hacks on the Web with relative ease. (And they won't void your warranty or brick your phone, either!)
- FileGuard X4: Paris-based Intego introduced FileGuard X4, a $49.95 encryption tool that enables you to create "safes" for various kinds of sensitive files, such as email messages and iChat logs.
- Iomega Hard Drives: Iomega introduced eight new external hard drives, in various shapes, sizes, capacities, and interface configurations. My favorite is the 160 GB Red eGo Hi-Speed USB 2.0 Portable Hard Drive, which is shaped sort of like a pocket flask. eBooze not included.
- Microsoft Office 2008: As Glenn Fleishman noted in "Inching Towards Microsoft Office 2008 for Mac" (2007-09-25), Microsoft announced the pricing and ship date for Office 2008. The new office suite was being shown at the Microsoft booth. My initial impression, having not yet used the software myself: it appears to have plenty of new features I don't need, while retaining most of the bugs and limitations I've come to know and love. Perhaps that will change before January.
- The Missing Sync for iPhone: Mark/Space was showing their almost-ready-to-ship software The Missing Sync for iPhone, which can do neat tricks like sync your iPhone's notes with those in Entourage or Yojimbo. The new software is scheduled to ship in Q4 2007 for $39.95.
Overall Impressions -- All in all, I found Apple Expo a bit underwhelming. I mean, it was perfectly nice - everything was shiny and new, the crowds were large, interest was high, and as far as the vendors are concerned, it was by all accounts a great success. But there didn't seem to be much substance to it, and not enough big new things to keep my attention for any length of time. In fairness, I'm a jaded veteran of umpteen Macworld Expos, so my impressions may be atypical. If you're a French Mac user, undoubtedly this would be an interesting and useful show to attend every few years. However, by no means should anyone make a special trip to France just for this show. Make a special trip to France for the food, the museums, and the history... and drop by the show if you have a free afternoon.