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Macworld 2011 Successful, but Needs to Keep Evolving

A decade ago, Macworld Expo was a barometer of the health of the Macintosh industry, and by proxy, of Apple Computer. But as Apple shed the word “Computer” from its name, Macintosh from its core focus, and eventually the trade show itself from the company’s schedule, any analysis of Macworld Expo has become indicative only of its own health, and the health of any trade show in an Internet-driven world.

After all, while Apple is almost literally on top of the world, by some measures, Macworld 2011 (still commonly referred to as “Macworld Expo”) in San Francisco has shrunk precipitously from the show’s heyday. Long gone are the days when Macworld Expo occupied the 440,000 square feet of Moscone South and Moscone North; this year’s exposition was housed in less than 100,000 square feet in Moscone West, with the conference sessions occupying parts of the second and third floors.

But don’t be fooled. There were a few more companies on the floor than last year—about 260—though most occupied small booths. On the attendance side, audited numbers won’t be out for a while, but IDG World Expo’s Paul Kent said, “We’re pleased there were more people and Macworld is clearly growing.” Attendance was pegged at “more than 20,000” last year, and IDG World Expo said this year saw “approximately 25,000 attendees.”

That’s good news, in an era when many of the traditional purposes of a trade show have been supplanted by the Internet. But the Internet can’t provide the kinds of human interactions that happen at a trade show, partially from a technical perspective (holographic video conference calls?) and partly because of the intense logistics required to facilitate those interactions.

In other words, people go to Macworld Expo because they can get things at the show they simply can’t get any other way. Glenn Fleishman joked that Macworld has morphed from a trade show with a conference attached to a conference with a trade show attached, referring to the extended breadth and increased attention paid to the conference side. While I suspect that overstates the case, he’s not wrong.

Exhibitors on the Floor — The smaller show floor wouldn’t take anyone but us ink-stained wretches of the press three days to cover, but as an adjunct to the many conference sessions, it was more than large enough. That probably means that many fewer attendees traveled from far away solely to see the show floor, but there were sufficient exhibitors to justify taking a day off work or coming in on the final Saturday of the show for people who live nearby.

The mix of exhibitors has changed over the years, along with Apple’s changing product line. With the rise of the iPod, the preponderance of vendors selling iPod cases became almost laughable, and in recent years, iPhone cases and other accessories—accompanied by a plethora of small companies selling iPhone apps—supplanted the fading iPod accessory market. So it wasn’t surprising this year to see a large number of exhibitors showing off iPad cases, which can provide industrial design and functionality far beyond what has been possible in the iPhone accessory market. If you were in the market for such a case, there was no better place to be where you could touch and compare nearly everything available in the market, and walk out
with a discounted purchase. (Take that, online retailing!)

As with last year, there were quite a few iOS app developers, mostly occupying small pods that cost less than the more-common, 10-foot-by-10-foot booth. Of course, the collection of iOS app developers is both a minuscule percentage of the companies represented in the App Store and essentially random, which gives that area of the floor a somewhat haphazard feel. Exaggerating that feel is the fact that the pods stack up several deep between the main aisles, making it a bit intimidating to wade into the crowd to talk to a developer.

The mix of the remaining Macintosh-focused exhibitors has changed too. There were relatively few companies (HP, Fujitsu, SMART Technologies, and Data Robotics being notable exceptions) showing printers, scanners, cameras, storage solutions, and other peripherals. That’s a shame, and is surprising, since I would think the opportunity to give thousands of people a chance to lay their hands on hardware devices would positively affect sales.

Macintosh software companies were represented primarily by small to mid-sized firms focusing on end-user software—such as Smile, The Omni Group, Nuance, and BusyMac—and, interestingly, by companies targeting the enterprise user with solutions for managing large Mac installations, customer response management, accounting, and more. One booth housed the companies who make up the Enterprise Desktop Alliance, since they found that combining forces was more effective than having scattered independent booths that would be hard for the enterprise manager to find.

What’s the Goal? Conspicuous by their absence were Microsoft and Adobe, and while it’s certainly true that they have no need for exposure—what Macworld attendee would be unfamiliar with Photoshop or Excel?—it’s too bad that they didn’t treat Macworld Expo as an opportunity to provide in-person support to existing customers. Adobe has gone missing since 2009, causing a general de-emphasis on graphic design software and products that has cut down on a traditionally strong market in the Mac world. Microsoft has appeared every year until now; I would think Microsoft’s MacBU would want to give people hands-on experience with the new Office 2011, especially
considering that they just released a trial version.

Perhaps the most troubling aspect of the show was the level to which the exhibitors didn’t reflect the Mac products that many of us use and recommend. This clearly isn’t IDG World Expo’s fault—they can’t make companies exhibit—but why didn’t we see firms like Microsoft, Adobe, Google, Canon, Epson, Brother, VMware, Parallels, Intuit, Skype, Dropbox, CrashPlan, Smith Micro, Agile Web Solutions, Roxio, Prosoft Engineering, Parliant, Panic, Rogue Amoeba, Bare Bones Software, DEVONtechnologies, Circus Ponies, Fetch Softworks, Cultured Code, Sustainable Softworks, the Pixelmator Team, or Realmac Software… to name a few off the top of my head?

Of the exhibitors with whom I spoke toward the end of the show, nearly all were happy with the show. I do wonder, though, since that has been universally true throughout Macworld Expo’s recent years’ decline, and yet not everyone comes back the following year.

Perhaps it’s a case of needing some time away from the hubbub of the floor to evaluate the worth of the show fully. After all, exposure to thousands of attendees and a mob of media is great in theory, but the actual benefit can’t be known until some time later, especially for those not doing on-the-floor sales.

Then there’s the question of what the goal actually is. The inevitable comparison is with the Consumer Electronics Show, which is far bigger than Macworld Expo, registering 120,000 attendees and some 2,800 exhibitors in 2010.

But Macworld Expo attendees are largely end users who are generally responsible only for a single sale or two, whereas those who attend CES are more likely to be distributors, resellers, or others who can generate ongoing sales; the general public isn’t allowed into CES. One vendor I spoke with said he would sometimes sit for a couple of hours at CES without anyone talking to him, whereas Macworld Expo provided a constant stream of interested and engaged attendees. Which will prove more valuable in the long run remains unknown, and different products might generate different answers.

Improvements, Current and Future — All this leads to the question of what IDG World Expo could do to make Macworld Expo more valuable, and to fill in that nagging feeling that something is missing. Apart from moving the schedule to include Saturday, the mechanics of Macworld Expo haven’t changed significantly from when Apple anchored a much larger show floor, despite the sense upon Apple’s departure that notable change was both necessary and desirable.

To be fair, IDG World Expo has done some tinkering around the edges. The last few years have seen a media reception the night before the show floor opens, but only a small number of exhibitors sign up because of the high cost.

New this year was the Macworld Industry Forum, which also took place the day before the show floor opened. A full-day event made up of short, 20-minute talks on disparate topics, it was impossible to quibble with the individual talks, but the event as a whole felt unfocused, leaving us and others wondering what the point of it was, and who the target audience was. We, and most of the other attendees we spoke with, felt as though we already knew most of what was said. The Macworld Industry Forum was a late addition, and thus lightly attended, but should IDG World Expo wish to continue it in future years, it would benefit from different topics and a format that encourages networking with the speakers and other attendees.

But otherwise, the show felt essentially unchanged, and while that’s not entirely a bad thing, there is plenty of room for tweaking and experimentation, including some of the kinds of things I mentioned in “Thoughts on the Past and Future of Macworld Expo” (12 January 2009).

For instance, despite talk of community, opportunities to connect with like-minded attendees at Macworld Expo were minimal. There were no couches or lounge areas on the show floor, and the only places to sit were a few tables near the Macworld Cafe at the back of the hall. The large Moscone West first floor atrium was also nearly devoid of seating space, and although there were plenty of tables and chairs on the second and third floor atriums, only those with conference or media passes were allowed up the escalators.

Also, particularly as IDG World Expo attempts to attract iOS developers who have never exhibited at a trade show before, it might be worth changing from a model where Macworld Expo is largely seen as providing a passive venue where exhibitors have the opportunity to interact with attendees and media to one where IDG World Expo actually helps to mediate those interactions (sales to attendees, coverage for media) for the benefit of all involved. And yes, that’s easy to say, but realistically, it’s a great unknown, and one that bedevils all media, who earn money from providing spots for advertisers and consumers to come together without being able to guarantee any actual performance.

Looking Forward — For those of us who remember Macworld Expo’s heyday, it’s confusing and frustrating to remember how essential the show was in the days when Apple was a far smaller and less important company, and when Mac users were a ridiculed minority. There was a sense that Macworld Expo was where you connected with the tribe, where you didn’t have to put up with sneers from Windows users. Now that nearly everyone seems to be using Apple products, and those products are far more complete and easier to use, there’s much less of a need for a meeting place for Mac and iOS users to gather.

That then is IDG World Expo’s continuing challenge: to figure out and provide the excuse for users—and companies—in the Apple space to get together once a year. I can’t speak for others, but for us, even beyond TidBITS coverage, Macworld Expo is a huge chance for business networking with sponsors, authors, service suppliers, and companies with whom we’ll work in the future. We would survive without that face time, but it’s so much more efficient to be able to meet with partners from all around the world over the course of a few days.

So we’ll be back for Macworld 2012, which is scheduled from Thursday, January 26th through Saturday, January 28th next year (I also expect happenings on the Wednesday before, if you’re planning ahead). See you at Moscone West then!

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