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Macworld Expo 2010 Reboots

If, last week, you heard a faint Macintosh startup chime from the direction of San Francisco, it was the sound of Macworld Expo rebooting after the crash caused by the disappearance of Apple from the exhibitor list. The good news is that although the show was notably smaller than previous incarnations, in terms of floor space and exhibitor count, the reboot was successful. Macworld seems essentially unaffected – indeed, even improved in places – without Apple’s presence (for my take on this event last year, see “Thoughts on the Past and Future of Macworld Expo,” 12 January 2009).

Let’s acknowledge up front that the tenor of the show was different without a Steve Jobs keynote to introduce new Apple products, and the show floor also felt different without the massive Apple booth. But the assumption on the part of many people was that those two undeniable facts would detract from the show, whereas I’d say that the reverse was, in fact, true.

The problem is that, as I’ve said many times, there’s a significant separation between Apple and the ecosystem that has grown up around the company. Apple’s withdrawal from the show was entirely rational from Apple’s perspective – the Apple retail stores really do provide far more exposure (and sales) than a booth at Macworld could.

And although Apple could have announced both Aperture 3 and the iPad in a Macworld Expo keynote, it undoubtedly relieves some pressure on the company to have products ready for the exact date of the show. One could even argue that having the iPad intro two weeks before Macworld Expo was actually better, since it gave show planners, software developers, and case makers time to come up with strong stories about their iPad plans.

Although it has been impossible for most show-goers to avoid the Apple booth in previous years – people were drawn to it like moths to the flame, despite the ease of seeing Apple products in stores – the lack of the big Apple booth on the floor this year meant that attendees focused instead on all the other exhibitors. That in turn meant that exhibitors were nearly universally happy with their traffic. (I say “nearly” only because I couldn’t talk with all exhibitors, but the many that I did ask were in complete agreement about the success of the show, and most said that they were already planning to return in 2011.)

For instance, the guys at audio software maker Rogue Amoeba were handing out CDs of demo software, and had gone through between 2,500 and 3,000 CDs toward the end of the second day. Regardless of the overall attendance, there is a limit on how many individuals can walk by any given booth, so they were extremely happy to have distributed so many CDs in only two days. And frankly, the smaller show floor made it easier to see everything, though it certainly would have been better if some long-standing exhibitors like Adobe, Canon, and FileMaker had been present.

Speaking of overall attendance, one long-time exhibitor I spoke with estimated the attendance at between 20,000 and 25,000, down slightly from last year, but clearly enough to provide exhibitors with a large enough audience. IDG World Expo is saying only “more than 20,000” until the attendance figures have been audited.

The exhibitor count was also down to 250 from over 400 last year, not surprisingly, with many vendors – particularly large- and medium-sized ones – choosing to sit the show out. They were replaced largely by many iPhone app developers jammed into a tightly packed central location, sharing space at small cocktail tables. Unfortunately, none of the iPhone app developers I spoke with had been able to see (due to normal lags in App Store reporting) a sales spike that might have pushed an app into the best-selling lists, which is often a self-fulfilling prophecy for continued sales.

Nonetheless, several developers pointed out that while they normally are forced to compete for press attention with tens of thousands of developers and 140,000 apps, exhibiting at Macworld reduced the competitive landscape to roughly 100 developers. Plus, one iPhone app developer from Hawaii noted that the opportunity to interact with customers was tremendously welcome, given the way the App Store separates customers from developers and seems to engender negative comments without context.

Covering the show as press was in some ways easier than in the past; along with the smaller show floor, a media reception the day before the show opened was a nice way to get together with other media people, and IDG World Expo wasn’t nearly as tight with media badges as had been the case when Apple wanted to restrict access to the keynote. IDG even went so far as to open the floor to press early on the first day, but unfortunately failed to publicize it well, leading to much consternation on the part of exhibitors seeing empty aisles and normal attendees being held at the door.

It’s important to realize that Macworld Expo is far more than just the show floor. I don’t have any hard data about number of attendees at the conference sessions, but in general, those sitting in on them had positive things to say. Beyond normal professional training, they can be tremendously useful for people in the Apple Consultants Network, who must take certification tests in various subjects. I was told by one ACN member that a couple of days of sessions at Macworld Expo can be cheaper and better than Apple’s own training for test preparation.

But it’s really the business networking arena where Macworld shines. Consultants and end users alike want to talk with experts from the companies whose products they use and recommend (video software maker Telestream staffed their booth only with a tech support guy and a quality assurance engineer, and both principals of the two-man company BusyMac were fielding calendaring questions nearly non-stop.) And while TidBITS staffers may be somewhat unusual, nearly everything we did at the show in some way cemented business connections and furthered our overall publishing goals; it’s just easier and faster to do some sorts of business in person.

Plus, there’s the serendipity factor of meeting people. Along with our many colleagues in the Mac industry who we see regularly at the show, we ran into a guy we knew from monitor maker SuperMac who had left the Mac world 17 years before to work as a policeman. And I spent time talking not just with executives at companies like MacSpeech and The Omni Group, but also with the marketing manager of the Indian company Global Delight about the latest beta of Voila, a screenshot utility about which I’d provided some constructive criticism in previous versions. It’s very much a two-way communication street at the show.

The highlight of my week came the day before the show actually opened, when I paused to look at some gorgeous photographs spread out on a table in the speaker lounge. Before I knew it, Bill Atkinson (creator of QuickDraw, MacPaint, and HyperCard, and an accomplished nature photographer) appeared out of nowhere to explain how the photographs came from his new iPhone app, PhotoCard, which enables users to send an email (for free) or paper (for a small printing and mailing fee) photo postcard, using either a personal photo or one of 150 of Bill’s nature photos. And when I say “explain,” I mean it in spades. Without prompting, Bill explained in detail how he’d built the back end, tweaked the Indigo printing process for the ultimate quality, and created a system that could serve as a marketplace for other fine art photographers.

Needless to say, Bill had seen the iPad at its introduction, and he felt it was an extremely positive move for the future of computing, showing that much of the complexity of maintaining and using a computer can be eliminated by rethinking user interfaces. He said, interestingly, that Apple had been working on the iPad well before the iPhone’s release, but that the necessary technology just wasn’t available, so Steve Jobs decided that Apple would instead focus on the iPhone as the first member of a family of iPhone OS devices. And, reportedly, Steve told Bill that the hardest engineering task in iPad development was getting the price down to the $499 level; technology development may be hard, but doing it within tight price constraints requires more than technical wizardry.

After Bill finished his whirlwind technical discussion of everything related to PhotoCard and the iPad, we went on to talk about his goals with HyperCard, how I’d started TidBITS in HyperCard format back in 1990, and why he left Apple for General Magic in part to create a device that would facilitate the passing of short notes called “telecards.” It was fascinating to think about how his work was too early – the cellular infrastructure wasn’t in place – but how it presaged SMS text messaging and Twitter, and may have even informed some of Apple’s iPad design.

Somehow that segued into a conversation about features that he had pulled out of MacPaint and his efforts to create a “learning processor,” and from there into educational philosophies about how we learn. Nearly two hours after we started, I had to pull myself away to meet Tonya at a media reception, but the time spent talking with Bill was an utterly unexpected bonus. Obviously, that’s not something that can be replicated for everyone, but that sort of serendipitous meeting happens all the time at Macworld Expo.

And, luckily, it appears that Macworld Expo 2010 was easily successful enough to enable IDG World Expo to schedule Macworld Expo 2011 for January 25th through 29th next year. That will include another Saturday for the show floor, and I hope IDG does some local advertising to encourage San Francisco residents to attend; the show floor was definitely less full on Saturday, but the fact that it was open hadn’t been promoted strongly other than via social media.

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