This article originally appeared in TidBITS on 2009-01-12 at 4:48 p.m.
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Thoughts on the Past and Future of Macworld Expo

by Adam C. Engst

At Macworld Expo, the usual query upon meeting an acquaintance is, "So what have you seen that's cool?" This year, I didn't receive that question until late on the final day. Instead, the constant inquiry ran along the lines of, "Do you think there will be a Macworld Expo next year, now that Apple is pulling out?" For the record: Yes, I do. However, it's not guaranteed, since there's no way to predict what additional abuses could be heaped upon the beleaguered show organizers in the next 12 months. But Paul Kent of IDG World Expo certainly plans to put Macworld Expo on in 2010 in San Francisco. You can even register to attend for free [1] now, and if Paul and his team can make next year's show a success, Macworld Expo will continue beyond that date.

Walking the Floor -- But while Apple's decision to pull out of Macworld Expo after this year dominated conversation, it didn't cast a significant pall over the show floor or the sessions. Attendance was somewhat down from last year (final numbers won't be available for a few weeks), but that's almost certainly due to overall economic conditions. Plus, had Apple's announcements been as compelling as in previous years, it's possible that more local residents would have been drawn in for a day, as I'm sure happened two years ago with the introduction of the iPhone or last year with the MacBook Air.

Speaking of Apple's announcements, the uncluttered layout of Apple's booth confirmed for me the rumblings I'd heard that Apple had planned to make more-significant hardware announcements but was forced to pull them because they weren't ready for prime time. To put it another way, although Apple doesn't mind showing a product that won't ship for a month, Steve Jobs dislikes promising ship dates that he isn't certain Apple can meet. And with a number of recent releases (MobileMe being the most notable) requiring a several updates to reach Apple's usual level of quality, I can't blame him.

Despite the open space in Apple's booth that seemed designed to hold another row of tables displaying shiny new Mac models, most of the floor space in both the North and South halls of Moscone Center was occupied. The South hall featured more of the larger exhibitors, with the North hall picking up smaller, less well-known companies and a few oddities, like Acura (they were showing a really large, car-shaped iPod case). The aisles were often full, though crowds thinned out significantly toward the end of each day.

Plus, with the exception of the long-standing Netter's Dinner, whose attendance was reduced by many regulars being unable to attend the show at all, the parties we attended were packed, and there were often three or four competing events each night. Since it's devilishly difficult to calculate the marketing win from throwing a party, the fact that there were so many says to me that Mac companies are still feeling optimistic about the state of the market.

Future of Macworld -- So if it was a generally successful show, despite no major announcements from Apple, is the doom and gloom about Macworld Expo's future warranted? Forced change is always scary, without a doubt, and Macworld will have to change to survive. Macworld received a pardon from the fate that eliminated many other large trade shows over the past decade, thanks largely to Apple's resurgence over that time (though it's safe to say that Apple also needed, or at least benefited from, Macworld's audience of press, developers, and influencers even in recent years). But now there's no avoiding reality, and Macworld will have to adjust not just to the loss of Apple as a primary exhibitor, but also to all the changes that have felled other trade shows. The most notable of these changes is the use of the Internet to replace much of the information exchange that was previously possible only at shows. So where should IDG turn next?

IDG has a number of constituencies - attendees, exhibitors, press, speakers, and, until now, Apple. While all the constituencies are important to the health of the show, only Apple had the power to affect the show ahead of time. But it's entirely unclear that what's good for Apple (or at least what Apple wanted) is good for the other constituencies. For instance, sources tell me that Apple dictated certain terms that, for instance, prevented IDG from collecting a set of exhibitors into a Gaming or iPhone section of the show floor, which might have benefited those companies.

Exhibitors pay the steep price for booth space (and all the associated booth and staffing requirements) largely because of the marketing opportunities (press coverage, distributor meetings, pre-sales questions, and support for existing customers) that result from exhibiting - direct sales to attendees seldom do more than defray costs. For Macworld to succeed as a trade show (as opposed to a session-based conference), IDG will need to make sure that exhibiting provides sufficient value for the money.

(This is especially true in light of the recent news from the Consumer Electronics Association [2] that there will be a new Apple section at CES 2010. Macworld Expo will now have to vie for exhibitors lured by the potential of a broader tech audience populated largely by dealers and press; it's not user-focused.)

For many years, speaking at Macworld was largely a donation of knowledge back to the community, since the only benefit speakers received for their efforts was a reputation boost from appearing in the conference program. But in recent years, IDG has done a good job of making speakers feel appreciated. The comfortable speaker room always has food laid out, keynote access is provided, and in the last few years, IDG has worked with select exhibitors to provide swag bags full of software and accessories that make the effort of preparing a talk downright palatable. I don't see a need for much new here.

When it comes to press, IDG's role has historically been to provide media badges, keynote access, and a media room where journalists can work. But what the press really wants from Macworld is news, and Apple won't be providing that in a keynote, so IDG will need to step into the breach.

And attendees? Individuals attend Macworld for a variety of reasons, ranging from professional development to simple curiosity about the state of the Mac industry, but the main thing to remember is that unless you live near San Francisco, the requisite airfare and hotel expenses add up quickly. So, again, IDG will need to focus on features that provide sufficient value, such as sessions, without making people feel as though they're paying for every little thing.

There's actually another constituency that's seldom recognized: industry executives. Whether it's a distributor scouting the show for new products to carry, a publisher meeting with potential authors, a Web site seeking advertisers, or just executives getting together to discuss how their companies can do business, there's a lot that happens behind the scenes at Macworld.

Some suggestions then, and if you have more, IDG has a 2010 Suggestion Box [3] on the Macworld Expo site:

To be clear, TidBITS Publishing has no direct interest in whether Macworld Expo succeeds or fails - it costs us several thousand dollars each year to attend, between airplane tickets, hotel rooms, and food, and we don't reap any direct payment for our efforts at the show.

However, as a place to gather information for publication, touch base with our far-flung authors and editors, meet with potential sponsors, cement relationships with industry acquaintances with whom we do business, and generally open our minds to new products and ideas, Macworld Expo is utterly worthwhile. Between 5 PM and 10 PM on Tuesday night at the show, I had more business development conversations than in the previous 3 months. And at a meeting the next day, a chance comment was made that may generate twice what we spent on attending the show, with no additional work whatsoever. All this - and there was more - might have happened otherwise, but it certainly wouldn't have happened so quickly.

Put it this way: Macworld is but a pebble thrown in the Macintosh pond each year, but its ripples spread far and wide.