Macworld Expo S.F. 1998: Subdued, but Positive
I approached this year’s Macworld Expo in San Francisco with trepidation. 1997 was a tumultuous year for the Macintosh community – we saw the beginning of the end for Macintosh clones, renewed emphasis on the Macintosh platform from Microsoft, the resignation of CEO Gil Amelio and other executives, and the return of Steve Jobs to the post of Apple CEO-in-all-but-name.
The first day of the show was concerning. Although Jobs’s keynote was generally well-received, especially Apple’s report of a $45 million profit for the first quarter of 1998, the keynote bore no news about a new CEO and focused primarily on the past and present, with little about Apple’s plans for the future. The aisles of the show, though not deserted, were easy navigated the first day, perhaps due to the absence of the people attending conference sessions.
After the first day’s worries, walking around became far more difficult as the crowds increased. Most exhibitors I spoke with were happy with how the show was going, and products flew off the shelves. One company reported that it sold more copies of its product at Macworld than during Comdex, a much larger show, and on the final day, the line to buy Connectix’s products routinely held 30 or 40 people.
So, although there’s no question that the show was slightly smaller and more subdued than in previous years, it was neither a significant downturn nor a desperate last hurrah.
No Cloning Around — One of the major reasons the show seemed smaller and quieter was that it was smaller – by about 10 percent. In many ways, the smaller size was welcome, since it meant more room for eating the overpriced food on the show floor, along with more places devoted to sitting, an activity that’s always welcome at Macworld.
Although it’s easy to read doom and gloom into the 10 percent shrinkage, Neil Ticktin of MacTech Magazine reported that the conference organizers said the clone vendors had taken up about 10 percent of the floor space the previous year. Given only Power Computing’s massive booth area last year (see my report on last year’s show in TidBITS-361), it’s not surprising the show would have shrunk.
This year UMAX and Mactell represented the remnants of the Macintosh clone market, but neither made the splash that Power Computing has made in previous years. The lower clone profile is probably a combination of quieter corporate attitude, fewer marketing funds, and a desire to stay off Apple’s radar. It will be interesting to see how many clone vendors survive 1998.
Squeezably Microsoft — In many ways, the biggest news of the show focused again on Microsoft, as it had at Macworld Boston. This time the news was more than a PR pat on the back and token investment – Microsoft showed the Macintosh versions of Internet Explorer 4.0 and Microsoft Office 98, one of the most important products for the Mac, especially in offices with both Macs and Windows machines. Although the preview release of Internet Explorer 4.0 has been available for several months, this was the first time that many people had seen Office 98, and from reports I heard, the reactions were almost uniformly positive. A friend sitting in the press section during the keynote demo of Office 98 reported that the whispered comments graduated from negative to grudgingly impressed as the demo progressed – not bad for such a tough crowd. My impression of Office 98 primarily concerns Word, and I suspect that although die-hard Word 5.1 users may hold out for a while, users of the poorly received Word 6 will upgrade immediately and appreciate the new features (such as the interactive spell checking that underlines incorrectly spelled words) and the much-improved, Mac-like interface.
Animosity toward the software giant continues, not surprisingly, as evidenced by boos for Internet Explorer during the keynote and individual comments heard throughout the show. A popular item was the biting parody CD-ROM called Winblows from Parroty Interactive. (They have another called PYST, a parody of Myst.) But, Apple continually emphasized the new closer relationship between Apple and Microsoft, and Steve Jobs spoke briefly at the combined Microsoft/Apple party for Internet Explorer 4.0 and Office 98. Perhaps the situation from Apple’s perspective is best summed up by a friend, who jokingly noted while walking by the Microsoft booth, "Oh no, it’s Microsoft! Wait, they’re the good guys now."
Toad the Wet Socket — After the last few years of Internet emphasis at Macworld Expo, I was surprised to see a notable reduction this year. Most of the Internet companies I expected to see, such as StarNine, Blue World Communications, Stalker, Qualcomm, Maxum, ClearWay, Web Broadcasting, EveryWare Development, and Rockstar Studios were present, but I found no surprises. A number of smaller Internet companies did appear in small booths in the Developer Central area, so that’s where we were able to find Bare Bones Software, Tenon Intersystems, Qdea, and Hotline Communications, along with newcomer Omni Development, showing their OmniWeb Web browser for Rhapsody.
I think there are three reasons for this reduced focus on the Internet. First, many of the Internet technologies shown have been around for several years and have started to mature. StarNine announced the public beta of WebSTAR 3.0, Maxum had their Rumpus FTP server, Stalker showed a version of their CommuniGate mail server running under Rhapsody, and so on. There’s nothing wrong with any of these products, but let’s face it, new versions of existing Internet servers aren’t all that exciting on a grand scale.
Second, Apple’s past emphasis on the Internet has seemingly all but disappeared. I saw no mention of the Apple Internet Server Solution bundles, and reports from contacts within Apple indicate that budgets were cut to the bone in 1997. Those budget cuts decidedly hurt Internet marketing and evangelism departments; they were probably equally destructive to development efforts that hadn’t yet seen the light of day. Although there’s no question that Apple had to reduce expenses tremendously to weather the financial crises of 1997, the end result may prove damaging to Rhapsody, which continues to look as though it’s being groomed as a server operating system. If webmasters and network administrators feel they can’t rely on Apple to provide Mac OS servers, it may prove difficult for Apple to convince them to adopt Rhapsody servers.
Third and finally, on the client side, the much-publicized browser wars between Netscape and Microsoft have hurt the rest of the Internet market. As Web browsers improve and incorporate an ever-increasing number of features, it’s more difficult for dedicated programs – whether an FTP client like Fetch or Anarchie or an email program like Emailer or Eudora – to survive, no matter how much better they may be. (Despite this, Bare Bones Software was showing a pre-release version of a new email client, called Mailsmith.)
Of even more concern is where this will all lead, since it’s easier to gain market share than it is to make money with a business model that involves giving away software. Netscape Communications lost money last quarter, and even though Microsoft can afford to pump money into Internet Explorer for the foreseeable future, Microsoft is as interested in the bottom line as any other company and sooner or later, that development will have to pay off in a measurable fashion.
Cache as Cache Can — I shouldn’t imply there were no interesting Internet products at the show. Connectix decidedly walked off with the prize for SurfExpress, which speeds Web browser caching significantly (by redirecting cached Web pages into a high-performance database to avoid the slower Mac OS file system) and enables you to search through cached Web pages. Maxum and ClearWay were together showing WebDoubler, a dedicated caching proxy server (which retrieves pages you request from the Web, then stores them so you or others on your network can retrieve them quickly from the local cache, rather than slowly from the Internet again) for the Mac that would be ideal for improving browser performance and providing content filtering to a school or small office. Tenon’s WebTen, a Macintosh version of the popular Unix Apache Web server and Squid caching proxy server was previously the only caching proxy server available, and WebSTAR 3.0 promises to include one as well.
The Dutch company Neuron Data Systems demoed the $139 MacCoach, a clever ADB device that talks to a control panel on a server to make sure the server is still running; if communication fails due to a crash, MacCoach simulates a Control-Command-Power keystroke to restart the Mac. Although MacCoach isn’t as flexible or powerful as a PowerKey Pro with the Server Restart Option from Sophisticated Circuits, MacCoach is smaller and simpler, but about the same price. Frankly, I wouldn’t run a Macintosh Internet server without a PowerKey Pro, but I may have to try MacCoach.
Finally, I watched a demo of ClearWay’s Web Archer, a utility that simplifies searching with multiple Web search engines and searching for specific types of information. I’d tried the Web Archer demo before, but failed to notice all the clever tricks it has hidden in its interface, many of them contextual to the type of search you’ve performed. It’s worth a closer look.
New York, New York! The Macintosh industry is far from dead, as evidenced by this show and its tens of thousands of attendees. Apple claims to be back on the road to profitability, although it remains to be seen if the company can maintain the upward trend and erase the bad taste of 1997. We’ll have to wait until Macworld Expo New York in July (the 6th through the 10th) for another snapshot of the industry as a whole. Let’s hope it’s clear, in focus, and with everyone smiling.