After every Macworld Expo, I write an article expressing my thoughts about the show. For the most part, those articles haven’t been particularly positive in recent years. There weren’t many interesting products, and Internet support fell primarily into the "wanna-be" category. This year, however, I left Macworld Expo with a renewed sense of optimism (along with some exotic form of the flu).
The NeXT Big Thing — The big news, of course, was Apple’s acquisition of NeXT. More details on the merger were available from Apple at the show, but they only lay out in relatively rough strokes the path Apple believes it will take over the next few years. I won’t delve into those details here – check Tonya’s article about Gil Amelio’s overly long keynote for more information.
Attitudes about the acquisition were generally upbeat, although a number of people agreed with me that Apple simply had to do something, and the specifics mattered somewhat less. A number of elderly NeXT machines were in evidence on the floor, having been pulled from the closet to show support for future operating systems directions. The main negative opinion I heard came from an ex-Apple employee who felt that purchasing NeXT was all fine and nice, but didn’t solve any of Apple’s real problems (mainly management, in his view).
Ex-NeXT employees and developers were coming out of the woodwork, lending an air of surrealism to some of the late night parties. An interesting level of support came from current NeXT developers, who were ecstatic about the promise of a mainstream market for their products, many of which have been on the shelf for years. One person estimated that Apple sells more Macs in a month than copies of NeXTstep (on or off NeXT hardware) have ever been sold, so it’s easy to see why NeXT developers would be happy about having access to a larger market.
The Power to Be — Despite the positive reception of the NeXT deal, the Be booth was one of the busiest; it was almost impossible to squeeze in for a look at Power Macs running Macintosh applications under the BeOS. Other companies made big splashes, including Iomega, which gave out enough big, yellow buttons for serious button geeks to armor-plate themselves.
In terms of pure showmanship though, no one even came close to Macintosh clone maker Power Computing. Continuing its "Fight Back for the Mac!" theme, Power took over an entire corner of a hall, decorating their booth in camouflage netting and other survivalist accoutrements. All of Power’s staff wore black T-shirts and camouflage pants, which made for easy identification and probably more comfort than other companies’ booth uniforms. Head-shots of Power Computing CEO Steve Kahng adorned posters, T-shirts, and a huge banner outside one of the two exhibition halls. Underneath Steve’s visage were "Steve says" slogans about fighting back for the Mac – they were enough to unnerve a few people who thought the slogans Maoist. Power also rented an entire fleet of Hummers, U.S. Army transport vehicles, mounted loudspeakers on them, and drove them around San Francisco blaring the "Steve says" slogans.
After watching Mike Rosenfelt, Power Computing’s Director of Marketing, whip a crowd into a frenzy as a Power Computing machine easily bested a Compaq 200 MHz Pentium Pro in Adobe Premiere, all I could think was that Apple could use a serious dose of that kind of enthusiasm. Apple’s most significant strength has always been its loyal user base. That allegiance often wavers these days, and displays like Power’s – pure, unadulterated hucksterism though it may be – help people feel there’s still a fire burning in the Macintosh world.
Internet for Real — Internet offerings at the last few Macworld Expos left me with a bad taste in my mouth, since every other company was pretending it was now an Internet company. (Never mind that most products had little or no relationship to the Internet – that was the claim.) This year, however, Internet claims were somewhat lower-key, and more important, when made they were often backed up by reality.
Booth shirts with company URLs on the back were commonplace this year, and we received fewer clueless looks when we asked for the smallest piece of paper with a URL on it, given that a business card or postcard works just as well as a glossy brochure for reminding me that I want to investigate some product further. Despite the effort and expense of printing glossy brochures, they’re next to useless when stacked up against even a mediocre Web site.
Thanks To All the Little People — A significant factor in my overall positive opinion of the show is that there were a lot more small companies. In large part, thanks are due to the people who organized the Developer Central area, the Developer Greenhouse area, and the Component 100 area, all of which gave small bits of space to companies that would never have been able to afford to appear at the Expo otherwise.
Developer Central tried to concentrate on software development tools, though I found a number of interesting products there that had nothing to do with development, including my pick for best new product of the show, 6prime’s Rev, a revision control program for the rest of us (more in our next issue). The Developer Greenhouse apparently chooses the most interesting companies from a pool of applicants – I was pleased to see a number of Internet companies there, lending credence to the opinion that much of what’s interesting on the Mac is on the Internet these days. Component 100 was a tightly packed group of companies showing (and selling) low-priced LiveObjects for those who have adopted OpenDoc. I was impressed with some of the tools and will be investigating them further.
Finally, a quick story. While eating breakfast with friends at the Marriott Hotel (one of the main conference hotels), I had a fascinating discussion with our waiter. He wasn’t technically savvy and knew nothing about the industry other than what was proclaimed by the headlines, and yet he felt that the Mac industry was recovering well from last year. He judged everything by the mood of the people he served, and if you consider the number of people a waiter encounters in several days of a trade show, we’re talking about a fairly large sample size. Last year, apparently, he had people literally crying at their tables, and the overall tenor ranged from glum to downright depressed. This year, though, he said that people seemed brighter and more upbeat, despite Apple’s recently posted $150 million loss. I won’t pretend this is a scientific evaluation of Apple’s future, but I know I’m going to be chatting more with the wait staffs at trade shows in the future. They may prove the best analysts of public opinion yet.