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Series: Macworld Boston '04
Can smaller truly be better for the once-mammoth Beantown Mac shindig?
Article 1 of 3 in series
by Tonya Engst
It's been the better part of a decade since Boston hosted Macworld Expo, and those of us who haven't been back since the early East Coast expos in Boston were interested to see the massive changes to the city: a huge freeway had been torn down and stuffed underground in tunnels, the area around the World Trade Center looks far less like an industrial wasteland (and more like a city), and the huge new Boston Convention & Exhibition Center is so new that the carpet squeaked in places. Past -- Macworld Expo on the East Coast - whether in Boston or New York City - has been characterized by heat and humidity, a loud and dynamic show floor, and a large and broad representation of all that is Macintosh. The recent Macworld Expo in Boston failed to deliver on any of those items, but as Expo Conference Chair Paul Kent described it, comparing this year's Expo to those in the past would be comparing apples to orangesShow full article
It's been the better part of a decade since Boston hosted Macworld Expo, and those of us who haven't been back since the early East Coast expos in Boston were interested to see the massive changes to the city: a huge freeway had been torn down and stuffed underground in tunnels, the area around the World Trade Center looks far less like an industrial wasteland (and more like a city), and the huge new Boston Convention & Exhibition Center is so new that the carpet squeaked in places.
Past -- Macworld Expo on the East Coast - whether in Boston or New York City - has been characterized by heat and humidity, a loud and dynamic show floor, and a large and broad representation of all that is Macintosh.
The recent Macworld Expo in Boston failed to deliver on any of those items, but as Expo Conference Chair Paul Kent described it, comparing this year's Expo to those in the past would be comparing apples to oranges. This year's Boston weather hardly went into the 70s (I didn't even wear all the dresses I'd brought, since every day called for pants and sometimes an umbrella), the show floor stayed sufficiently calm that I didn't lose my voice talking over the din, and some notable elements of past shows were missing, though some new elements were introduced.
Present -- Mac users are good at beta testing, and for this show we got to test drive the brand new Boston Convention & Exhibition Center, which feels approximately the size of Vermont and is officially the seventh largest conference facility in the United States. With a predicted 9,000 to 10,000 attendees and approximately 80 vendors, the entire show could have fit in just a few of its hallways (by September, IDG World Expo will have audited and - presumably be willing to share - the attendee count). Despite its compact size, the show floor was usually humming with activity, but when I strayed to the farther reaches of the facility (such as the press room or the User Group lounge), I felt like an insect, dwarfed by the lonely immensity of the place.
I missed the presence and buzz typically generated by the larger companies at the show. As expected, Apple was a no-show, but everyone noticed and commented on the lack of booths from stalwarts like Adobe, Aladdin, Dantz Development, and Microsoft. (Equally noticeable was the atypical presence of Quark, which hasn't appeared at a Macworld Expo in years.) Nonetheless, the exhibitors I missed most were the small developers in Developer Central who showcase the latest in interesting and oddball (but often useful) ideas percolating at the cutting edge of what Macs can do.
To fill the time I would have otherwise spent walking the floor, I sampled the numerous presentations (such as those that were open to all on the Geeks and Gadgets stage), along with the conference sessions for those who paid extra. Some attendees were disappointed with the small size of the show floor, but for those who took this Expo for what it was and not what it used to be, it was a genuinely enjoyable chance to hobnob with other Mac users, pick up new tips and tricks, and check out a smattering of interesting Mac products. Vendors I spoke with were universally positive about the show, citing a more select pool of especially interested customers and the opportunity to spend more time with individual users.
Future -- Of course, the big question on everyone's mind is whether there will be a Macworld Expo next July. The answer certainly seems to be yes; the likely date and venue were printed on the back of attendee name tags: 18-Jul-05 through 21-Jul-05 at the Boston Convention and Exposition Center. During a panel session with several Expo organizers in the User Group Lounge, I asked Warwick Davies, group vice president for IDG World Expo, if those dates were solid and he gave me a three-part answer. First, he pointed out that they are already signing exhibitors up for next year. Second, he observed (and the folks in the User Group Lounge seemed to agree) that attendees were having a good time. Third, he noted that Macworld Expo is a business and that they have to analyze the financial situation before they can be sure about what's going to happen next year.
Overall, I'd count this Macworld Expo a success, at least on its own terms, and if that means that these mid-year shows are significantly different from both previous shows and Macworld Expo in San Francisco in January, so be it. Count me in for next year.
Article 2 of 3 in series
A few weeks ago I wrote an article proposing a way that industry conferences could be rated (though it was also a subtle nudge to conference organizers)Show full article
A few weeks ago I wrote an article proposing a way that industry conferences could be rated (though it was also a subtle nudge to conference organizers). Now that I've spent three days at Macworld Expo in Boston, let's see how the rating system works, and how Macworld Expo rated this year.
Attendee Ratings -- Obviously, I can't speak for everyone, so my ratings here reflect my experiences and those of people I talked with during the show.
Cost/value. For the people who got in free (and plenty did, through the tickets we helped Peachpit give away, and via other approaches), I think it's safe to say that the cost and value were entirely reasonable, despite the smaller show floor. Boston is on the expensive side for travel and lodging costs, making the show more attractive to locals who could hop on the subway and spend a few hours. I can't evaluate how valuable the sessions were; it undoubtedly depended on the specifics. +1 point.
Time/place. Macworld Expo has held this mid-July time slot for a number of years now, so it's not fair to subtract points for being in the middle of conference hurricane season. (Starting in late June, we saw Apple's Worldwide Developer Conference, followed by the small (but reportedly successful) Mac Networkers Retreat in Santa Barbara, California. This week, I'm off to the ADHOC (nee MacHack) conference in Dearborn, Michigan.) Since Boston is a nice city that will be even nicer once they finish their major construction, I'll give Macworld a point for this category. +1 point.
Logistics. IDG World Expo did a pretty good job with the logistics this year, with the only low point being the shuttle buses from the hotel to the convention center. Registration was easy and quick, and there were no hassles. +1 point.
Breadth and depth of exhibitors. Although IDG World Expo claimed 80 exhibitors, only 71 were listed on the Web site, and whatever the actual number, there's no question that this was the main place Macworld fell down. Without stopping to talk, it was easy to walk the entire floor in under an hour. -1 point.
Product support. Although attendees are probably most likely to want support from large vendors, most of whom weren't present, the smaller companies that were exhibiting tended to have technical staffers at their booths. +1 point.
Session quality. I didn't attend any sessions other than my own, but reports I heard from others were entirely positive. +1 point.
Keynote. In lieu of a keynote, Macworld Expo featured a panel discussion with four members of the original Mac team - Andy Hertzfeld, Bill Atkinson, Jerry Mannock, and Jef Raskin - moderated by David Pogue. Although a number of the anecdotes from the panel were amusing, and David did a good job of keeping things moving, the overall tenor was dragged down by Jef Raskin's claim that he had invented the Macintosh and his disdain for today's interfaces, though he wouldn't explain what his ideal interface would be. There's no question that Jef Raskin played an important role in the creation of the Macintosh, and even granting his claim to have come up with the initial idea, the way he presents his case feels denigrating to the other members of the Macintosh team, particularly considering that he left Apple years before the Mac even shipped. -1 point.
Free wireless Internet access. I can't complain about the wireless coverage, since it seemed to be ubiquitous, but actually connecting to the Internet was significantly flakier, such that I and others had constant trouble. Add to that a useless captive portal page at the Doubletree Bayside (one of the conference hotels) that required me to spend 20 minutes talking to tech support, and I'm removing any points that would otherwise have been won. 0 points.
Great deals. This category was again hurt by the number of exhibitors, since although some of those in attendance did have decent deals, ranging from 20 percent off books from Peachpit and O'Reilly to 50 percent off anything from Belkin and significant discounts on the Logitech Harmony universal remote controls, there weren't that many vendors to offer deals. 0 points.
Freebies. Some people had little tins of mints from Quark, Audible.com gave out some cards for a free month's subscription, Peachpit was unloading scads of red baseball hats, and IDG World Expo gave out free t-shirts to the first 400 people to pick up their badge holders each day, but that was about it. I didn't see a single amusing freebie, and I just can't see my way clear to awarding any points in this category. 0 points.
Snacks. Macworld Expo is too big to provide snacks for everyone, and although there was a food court, it clearly wasn't in full operation yet. 0 points.
Fun. In past years, Macworld Expo has been a pretty staid show, but this year saw a reprise of the MacBrainiac Challenge, a trivia game show with two teams of well-known Mac names competing. I was a member of Andy Ihnatko's Copland Development Team this year, along with Dan Frakes (Macworld and MacFixIt) and Rich Siegel (Bare Bones). Facing off against us was the Genius Barred team of Jason Snell (Macworld), Jim Dalrymple (MacCentral), Peter Cohen (MacCentral), and Bryan Chaffin (the Mac Observer), and the whole thing was ably moderated by Chris Breen (Macworld). Our goal was to be entertaining above all else, and to judge from the audience reaction, we succeeded. Our secondary goal of winning was less successful, since although we took most of the multiple choice questions, our worthy competitors were generally faster at the tasks Chris set us, resulting in a tie and setting us all up for a rematch in San Francisco this coming January. +1 points.
Community. The smaller size of this year's show definitely improved the sense of community, and the physical layout of the convention center helped as well, since there were plenty of tables and benches for people to congregate, chat, and hang out. An added bonus was the Mardi Gras-themed party that IDG World Expo threw for attendees, and although it wasn't free to get in, everyone who went seemed to enjoy the party and listening the Macintosh All Star Band. +1 points.
Exhibitors -- I can't legitimately rate Macworld Expo from the point of an exhibitor, but if I were to go on hearsay, I'd rate down somewhat for booth cost, since the prices were reportedly near what companies paid in San Francisco for a much larger audience. On the upside, even though there weren't that many attendees compared to previous years, vendors I spoke with said that people were much more interested than normal, and for those exhibitors who were selling products, sales were good.
Speakers -- Roughly the same people speak at every Macworld Expo, so over the years, the speaker room has acquired the comfortable feel of a neighborhood watering hole. It doesn't matter where the show is held, it's always the same round tables with white tablecloths, and the wireless Internet access and food are always welcome before dashing off to give a session.
Payment. Speaking at Macworld Expo is one of those things one does because it generally doesn't require extra travel or particularly onerous preparation. That's good because Macworld doesn't pay speakers for anything but the all-day sessions on the day before the show floor opens. Nevertheless, attendance is free, the food was extremely tasty this year, and the gift this year was a tremendously welcome anorak that kept many of us dry after the show on the first night. +1 points.
Moderators. Macworld has never had moderators, and it would be a welcome addition. On the positive side, the AV staff was particularly eager to please this year. 0 points.
Logistics. It may be more confusing for a first-time speaker, but since the same group, headed by Paul Kent, has been organizing the sessions for years, the logistics have become quite simple for repeat speakers. +1 points.
Press -- It wasn't a great year to be a journalist at Macworld Expo. Some ratings:
Press registration. Although registering for Macworld Expo is a bit fussy, what with having to fax a variety of Web page printouts to IDG World Expo to prove one's bona fides, the process hasn't changed for years, making it less of an annoyance. And without a Steve Jobs keynote to wait for on the first morning, Tonya and I had no trouble picking up our press badges. +1 points.
News events. Macworld simply wasn't that kind of show this year and nothing much happened. 0 points.
Press room. Although there was a press room, complete with tables and couches and even some iMacs for journalists without laptops, the press room itself was located in Outer Mongolia, thus ensuring that I spent my free time in the bustling speaker room instead. 0 points.
Food. Honestly, I'm not sure if there was food in the press room or not, since I didn't see any the one time I trekked down to it, but I never ventured that far again. 0 points.
Totals -- As I work through this rating system for real, rather than purely as a thought exercise, the more it seems to me that totals don't make sense. In large part that's because I can't see the totals being a legitimate way to compare completely different conferences; I think the scores are more useful as a way of evaluating how successful any given conference was, perhaps in comparison to previous instances of the same conference.
I also hope the ratings in different categories will help people decide if attending some conference in the future is worthwhile. The fact that Macworld picked up points for fun and community might be irrelevant if your desire was to see as many Mac vendors as possible, and that in turn would be irrelevant if you were more interested in attending presentations than traipsing around the show floor.
Article 3 of 3 in series
Despite Macworld Expo's small number of exhibitors and reduced attendance, there was no lack of superlatives, both interesting products and notable observations. Don't Try This While Driving -- Apple Specialist Tech Superpowers ended up with a bigger booth than they'd expected, so they decided to have some fun filling the spaceShow full article
Despite Macworld Expo's small number of exhibitors and reduced attendance, there was no lack of superlatives, both interesting products and notable observations.
Don't Try This While Driving -- Apple Specialist Tech Superpowers ended up with a bigger booth than they'd expected, so they decided to have some fun filling the space. They outfitted a four-door Lexus sedan with a complete Macintosh-based video editing hardware suite, complete with multiple monitors and control devices (for the passenger only!) hooked to a rack-mounted Xserve and Xserve RAID in the trunk. It was pure stunt, of course, but it was worth it to see people trying to figure out if the setup was meant to be serious.
Inconsistent Bus Drivers -- Taking the shuttle bus from the hotel to the show every day proved wildly variable. The bus was fine on the first day, but on the second day, our bus went around the back of the hotel, pulled up on the side, and after waiting for less than a minute, left before those of us staying dry in the lobby could dash out. Luckily, Tonya and I were able to grab a cab quickly, so I wasn't late for one of my talks, but everyone was flabbergasted that the driver would have been so inconsiderate. On the flip side, our driver the last day was not only amiable and helpful, he was a savvy Macintosh user who was jazzed when we were able to give him and his partner free passes to the exhibit floor.
No Catering Weasels at BCEC -- Macworld Expo was among the first trade shows in Boston's new Convention & Exhibition Center (BCEC), and although aspects of the venue were clearly unfinished, the staff was less jaded than at other more established venues. Nowhere was that more notable than with the catering staff, which provided food for the speaker room that was unusual, tasty, and even healthy, such as a corn and feta salad one day and a shrimp salad another. It was a welcome change from the usual uninspired and overly sweetened food at other events.
Chairs to Die For -- Perhaps I over-enthuse, but the standard chairs at the BCEC were the most comfortable institutional chairs I've ever used. Being a runner, I'm not exactly well-padded, and sitting through a two-hour keynote address is usually an exercise in fidgeting followed by an extremely sore bum. BCEC's chairs used the same kind of black mesh that you'll find in expensive desk chairs like the Herman Miller Aeron, and they even had lumbar support for your lower back. Now I just have to find the manufacturer - I've been looking for classy folding chairs for dinner parties.
Put Your iPod On Stage -- You can hook your iPod to any speakers or audio gear that offers an audio-in port, but Harman Multimedia's JBL division has gone further with On Stage, a frisbee-sized ring that holds four small speakers and provides a docking port for any iPod or iPod mini. The sound seemed good, though it was impossible for me to tell for sure because of the overall noise level on the show floor. The iPod/On Stage combination would also make a great clock radio, thanks to the iPod's clock features. JBL was also showing On Tour, a portable speaker that can run for 24 hours on 4 AAA batteries (it also includes a universal power adapter). On Stage's price will reportedly be $200 when it ships in September; the On Tour will be available in August for $100.
iPod Goes Bluetooth -- I was sitting in the hallway, chatting with Irina Nazarova of the Ukrainian developer BeLight Software when this guy came over and asked us if we'd like to try a Bluetooth headphone for the iPod. I've always hated cords dangling from headphones, and although I fully admit that the iPod's white cables have become almost iconic, I still find them annoying, fussy, and constantly tangled. But the i-Phono Bluetooth dongle and headphone that Bluetake's Clement Wen showed us worked flawlessly and with decent sound. Apparently, the devices can pair with multiple Bluetooth devices, so if you have a Bluetooth cell phone, it automatically cuts the music and switches to the call (the headphone includes a built-in foldable microphone). It's not entirely clear if the i-Phono devices are shipping, or what they cost, and Clement said they are working on a dongle that fits on top of the iPod rather than connecting via a short cable. I'm eager to test a production unit in the real world.
PhoneValet Takes Messages -- I reviewed Parliant's PhoneValet in TidBITS-699, but since then Parliant has enhanced the product with answering machine (including multiple voice mailboxes) and call recording features. What's particularly cool is that AppleScript integration enables you to forward messages to your cell phone or via email. It looks like a great solution for small offices without a receptionist, since PhoneValet can verbally announce callers using Caller ID so everyone knows which calls to answer, and if the person who's being called isn't available, it can take a message and if necessary forward it appropriately. PhoneValet costs $200 per line, and it's also worth noting that it now works with Now Software's Now Up-to-Date & Contact to provide automatic call logging, a remote activity list, and (soon) automated dialing. Now Software also currently discounts PhoneValet for existing customers and those who want a bundle of their software with PhoneValet.
Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mac -- If you're in charge of Macs that are in constant use by the public, you know how people manage to fiddle with configurations, delete files, and install new software. With MacShield from Centurion Technologies, fixing each Mac manually becomes a task of the past. When the Mac reboots, MacShield eradicates all user changes and restores the Mac to the initial state you set. MacShield doesn't place any restrictions on what users do during a session, and it writes all user changes to a temporary buffer space, thus ensuring that the Mac's original files are never modified and eliminating the need for a lengthy restore process. Centurion Technologies doesn't publish a price, leading me to believe it's a sliding scale based on the number of licenses you want.
Photos on the iPod -- Belkin's Media Reader allows you to copy your camera's media card to your iPod, which reportedly works well for cards under 256 MB in size (large cards suffer from unusually long download times). Belkin has now expanded the product line with the Digital Camera Link, which enables you to download photos to your iPod by connecting your camera's USB cable to the Digital Camera Link, which then plugs into the iPod. According to Belkin, the Digital Camera Link is faster than the Media Reader. Like the Media Reader, the Digital Camera Link requires batteries, since Apple is adamant that these devices not rely on the iPod's internal battery. Unfortunately, neither is compatible with the iPod mini. At $90, the Digital Camera Link is $20 cheaper than the Media Reader, but check to make sure your camera is compatible before buying.
Rock On in High Def with Roku -- TiVo's Home Media Option (see Alex Hoffman's review in TidBITS-698; note that the Home Media Option is now free) gives you TV-based controls to play music from iTunes through your stereo and view photos from iPhoto on your television, but in an unfortunate lapse, it can't do both simultaneously so that your photos act as a screensaver while your music plays. You probably wouldn't buy a TiVo for the Home Media Option alone, but if music and photos is all you want, look instead at Roku's $300 HD1000 High-Def Digital Media Player. Like other digital media players, it streams MP3s from iTunes to your stereo, and it can also display images on a high-definition television screen at the same time. It can load images from a media card or from your computer over the network, though it doesn't integrate with iPhoto. By default it uses wired Ethernet, though a wireless adapter is an optional add-on. You're not limited to still images; the HD1000 can also display MPEG2 movies, and Roku says that third-party applications are available to support additional formats. And if you need images (still and moving) to display, Roku sells four different $70 high-definition image packs.
The Ultimate Picture Frame -- What if your TV isn't where you'd prefer to display your pictures? For the ultimate picture frame, check out PhotoVu's PV1910 Digital Picture Frame. It's a nicely framed, 19-inch LCD display with a wide viewing angle powered by embedded Linux and networked via wired Ethernet or Wi-Fi. It does integrate with iPhoto, although you can also load images by plugging in a USB drive (a popular option with stores that use them for display). You control what displays on the screen using a Web interface; options let you turn the display on and off at different times, pick which images to display, and more. My main disappointment was that it doesn't currently support the Ken Burns Effect that Apple uses with the Mac OS X screen saver; the PhotoVu guys said they're working on it. It's also worth noting that the PV1910 doesn't scale photos up: too-small photos will appear with borders. $1,200 might seem expensive for such a device, but it's actually not too bad once you consider the cost of a high-quality LCD monitor, a CPU running embedded Linux, wired and wireless network interfaces, a custom Web interface, and a real picture frame with heavy-duty hangers. You could (and I may still) hack something together for less using old Mac hardware, but it wouldn't be nearly as elegant.
Spymac Reinvents the Wheel -- The Macintosh site Spymac hasn't particularly appeared on my radar, so I was surprised to see them occupying a large, slick booth and showing off Wheel, a collection of Internet services designed to compete with Apple's .Mac. Wheel includes 3 GB of space for email (accessible via POP, IMAP, and the Web) and 250 MB of WebDAV and FTP-accessible drive space for Web page hosting, iCal sharing, and backup via a simple program (like Apple's Backup) called WheelGuard. Wheel costs $40 per year; an account that offers only 1 GB of email space and shows ads in Web mail is free. While talking with Spymac's amiable and enthusiastic staffers I had a major moment of dot-com deja vu; the network pipes and redundant servers that such a service entails don't come cheap, and it seems questionable that the combination of access fees, advertising, and sales of Spymac gear would be sufficient. Despite retaining its name, Spymac has reportedly pulled back from its origins as a rumor site to focus on news and community; Wheel is a major change in direction.
Best Freebie for Education -- Massachusetts-based iScienceProject came to Macworld Expo to spread the word about their HOBO data loggers, educator loaner program, and free access to over 100 developed labs. iScienceProject's battery-powered data loggers are about the size of a deck of cards, and they record data such as humidity, light, and temperature. To work with the data, students plug the devices into Macs running OS X (via USB) or PCs running Windows versions as old as Windows 98 (via serial or USB), download the data, and then use either Onset's software or a spreadsheet for analysis. Although a variety of HOBO loggers are for sale from iScienceProject's sponsoring company, Onset Computer Corporation, teachers in K-12 can borrow one for two months for free. Teachers who develop their own labs for use with the loggers can enter the labs in the HOBO Project Contest; iScienceProject plans to reward winning labs with more HOBO hardware. The loaner program and contest are available to U.S. customers only. [TJE]