Every year at Macworld Expo, I try hard to put my finger on the zeitgeist of the show – the common threads that course through the dual halls of San Francisco’s Moscone Center. My standard process is to bounce around for a couple of days, chatting with people I know, asking new people about their opinions, and watching the ebb and flow of the show floor and the numerous parties after show hours. As the show wears on, the greeting you hear the most is, "Seen anything cool?" and the answers to that question, both those I get and those I give, help me focus in on the unconscious theme of the show.
This year I had trouble. I saw a few neat products early on that served as my answers to the "Seen anything cool?" question, and the answers I received also tended toward products I hadn’t previously seen. The Internet strategy that Steve Jobs articulated during his keynote also popped up in discussions, though Mac OS X did not (for the most part). Also missing from the conversations I had was digital video, despite an opinion from a long-time Macintosh writer that this was the year of digital video.
With my brain numbed from staying up way too late every night, I simply couldn’t put into words what I’d seen until Saturday when I was talking to my sister, who doesn’t pay much attention to the Macintosh industry. While attempting to summarize the previous four days, I told her that a lot of the little guys were coming back out of the woodwork, which was good to see after their disappearance during Apple’s death spiral days of 1997. That, I realized as I spoke, is it: the Macintosh industry has entered a phase of recolonization.
After the Burn — It’s as though the death spiral days were a raging fire that ravaged the industry forest, torching the weaker plants and driving animals to more hospitable grounds. The largest trees – the Microsofts and Adobes of the industry – survived (though with some scars), and now the recovery is underway. The fast-growing opportunistic plants – companies that helped us transition to USB and FireWire – were some of the first to capitalize on the new environment, and now other organisms are returning or even migrating anew to the woods. Numerous booths sported unfamiliar names, and I saw products that not only surprised me, but that I found myself wanting simply because they were neat. I couldn’t help lusting after Harman Kardon’s iSub, a clear plastic USB-based subwoofer that resembled nothing so much as a jellyfish. KB Gear Interactive showed a $50 pressure sensitive drawing tablet for kids, complete with an attached pen and template for use with the included Disney Magic Artist Studio painting program. And several vendors (including KB Gear) were selling digital cameras lacking LCD displays and limited to only 640 by 480 resolution, but which cost less than $100.
Even the show floor reflected this recovery. The south hall of Moscone Center primarily housed the well-known names: Apple, Microsoft, Adobe, Connectix, Aladdin, and more. The north hall, however, had not only generally smaller booths from less well-known companies, but also nine different special interest areas, which were collections of very small booths staffed by no more than a person or two with a single computer for demos. There was the Consumer Showcase, the Music & Audio area, Extensions Workshop for the desktop publishing crowd, Education District, Small Business Solutions, Sci Tech for the engineering and math folks, the Digital Media Studio for media professionals, and the traditional MacTech-sponsored Net Innovators and Developer Central areas. Although there clearly had been cancellations, resulting in empty pockets (real world white space) in between booths, all the small companies demonstrating in the pavilions significantly increased the overall number of vendors and the breadth of products shown.
Also telling were the number of companies only peripherally related to the Macintosh. Palm Computing and upstart Handspring’s booths were mobbed by Macintosh users interested in a Palm OS handheld (which we’re considering abbreviating to POSH, since "Palm OS handheld" rolls off the tongue like sun-warmed asphalt). Industrial Light & Magic paid for and staffed a booth purely to attract potential employees. Matsucom showed a beefy watch called the onHand PC that squeezed many of the features of Palm OS handhelds into a timepiece that could synchronize with a Macintosh. Guru.com plugged their Web-based service for connecting employers with free-lancers and consultants, and a variety of other temporary employment agencies and staffing services catered to specific fields.
The reappearance of these companies shows that Apple’s recovery, sparked by the iMac and nourished by the professional level Power Macintosh G3 and G4 along with the consumer level iBook, has increased the size of the Mac market such that little companies can justify a business model based on serving a niche. Even companies that don’t produce Macintosh-specific products now see the Macintosh market worth tapping, and if that’s not indicative of the rejuvenation, I don’t know what is.