I’ve been analyzing Macworld Expos for a long time now, and never have I been quite so at a loss for what to say. It wasn’t that this year’s Macworld Expo in San Francisco was a bad show, because it wasn’t. But it wasn’t a stunning show either, and more to the point, there simply wasn’t a lot about it that stood out one way or another after the great new iMac and iPhoto.
The number of exhibitors was down quite a bit from last year, with notable absences such as Macromedia, Palm, and Handspring, and even those that were present occupied less space than before. There were bright spots – MacTech Central, which hosts interesting small developers, represented about 10 percent of the companies at the show and was larger than any of the other special interest pavilions, a nice achievement to mark MacTech Magazine’s 200th issue and Neil Ticktin’s 10th anniversary as publisher of the magazine. Plus, attendance estimates put it at least comparable to last year’s figures, which is downright amazing in this weak economic climate. Other information technology shows have suffered significant attendance drops, and while I’m sure IDG World Expo worked hard to get attendees in the door, I see no reason to assume that other show organizers wouldn’t be doing the same.
Most interestingly, just like the previous Macworld Expo in New York, both attendees and exhibitors were upbeat. MacAcademy reportedly sold a lot more of their training products this year than last, and Peachpit Press was doing banner business selling books. Other booths, like the CoolMacStuff.com booth and the folks selling old software at cut-rate prices, were constantly mobbed. Retailers weren’t the only ones were happy – Jim Rea of ProVUE Development (the Panorama folks) said it was a great show for them, and others echoed the sentiment.
Although there were numerous exhibitors showing Mac OS X-native applications, most of those were ports of previous versions and didn’t add much in the way of new functionality or showcase Mac OS X’s capabilities. In fact, a number of them suffered from performance problems under Mac OS X because an application doesn’t seem to be able to take over nearly 100 percent of the Mac’s CPU power under Mac OS X, as is possible in Mac OS 9, making it difficult to provide peak performance on the same hardware. As a friend put it, when a company proudly told you they’d ported their program to Mac OS X, you felt like patting them on the head and saying, "Here’s a cookie."
Don’t take this as criticism of the developers – just getting programs ported to Mac OS X has been a Herculean task for many. Despite what Apple claimed when Mac OS X was first announced, the process of carbonizing an application isn’t trivial, and a number of developers were griping about having to pay their programmers to debug Apple’s code. Especially notable was the lack of a Carbon version of Adobe Photoshop, partially because it’s such a necessity for the graphic design market and partially because Apple had trotted Adobe out at the WWDC announcement of Mac OS X nearly three years back to show how they’d ported much of Photoshop in a week. Ouch.
It also shouldn’t be taken as more than constructive criticism of Apple. Apple doesn’t want to make things difficult for developers – that’s a losing strategy if ever there was one – but merging NeXTstep and the Mac OS and moving it forward in new ways has simply proved more difficult than Apple imagined. There have certainly been stupid decisions and ill-advised bits of inattention to important areas, but that’s often just the cost of doing business in a project as large as Mac OS X. One ray of hope is the return of Bud Tribble as a vice president of Software Technology, reporting to Avie Tevanian. Bud Tribble is well known as the manager of the original Macintosh Software team, after which he helped found NeXT Computer, worked as chief technology officer for the Sun-Netscape Alliance, and was most recently vice president of Engineering for Eazel, Andy Hertzfeld’s attempt to create an open source graphical interface for Linux.
In fact, all this is in large part why iPhoto is so important. It’s not just a Mac-only application, it’s a full-fledged Cocoa application that runs only under Mac OS X. In essence, you have Apple saying, "Well, if no one else is going to show off just how easy it is to write a Cocoa application that does new stuff, we’ll just have to do it ourselves." iPhoto isn’t just a decent little application with a few neat tricks, it’s a good-enough-to-ship proof of concept, where the concept is that Mac developers will bring new functionality to the platform thanks to the wonders of Mac OS X. That’s what I’m looking forward to for Macworld Expo New York next July.
Perhaps what I’m trying to tease out is the level to which Macworld Expo has become a networking event as much as a showcase of the latest technology. Numerous private parties supplanted the costly corporate events, resulting in smaller gatherings held in venues where conversation didn’t require screaming to be heard over the band. Although we all go to Macworld Expo to see the latest new thing, this year’s show gave us – and hopefully many others – the opportunity to look beyond the obvious and see where the full range of Mac companies is headed.