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Impressions of a Macworld Newbie… 2014 Edition

Back in 1997, my friend and fellow TidBITS editor Jeff Carlson made his first trip to Macworld Expo (see “Impressions of a Macworld Newbie,” 20 January 1997). Seventeen years later, I’ve followed in Jeff’s footsteps, making my own first visit.

The show I visited was very different than the one Jeff attended. It has been over five years since Apple exhibited, with the company instead staging its own media events. Even if Apple were still exhibiting, Steve Jobs, who made his first public appearance after returning to Apple during Jeff’s first keynote, is now long gone. Even the show name is different, morphing from Macworld Expo to Macworld/iWorld to better reflect Apple’s current product line.

Some say that without Apple, the show is dying. Maybe they’re right, though I’d lay the blame more at the feet of the Internet. But for a “dying” show, the floor was often packed, slowing movement between booths.

A few veterans apologized for the show not being the spectacle it once was. But, truth be told, I don’t think I could have come on a better year. Despite it being my first show, I was graciously invited to speak about the NSA by Macworld/iWorld General Manager Paul Kent, and Macworld’s Philip Michaels invited me to compete in the Pundit Showdown at the suggestion of — who else? — former champion Jeff Carlson. Could someone with less than a year of industry experience have done so much under the shadow of Steve
Jobs? I doubt it.

All that said, I’ll follow in Jeff’s footsteps by offering some observations.

Busting Myths — First of all, I want to bust some myths about San Francisco itself, at least for those who, like me, hail from the South. Around these parts, the stereotype is that San Franciscans are smug, rude, and judgmental. That stereotype couldn’t have been more wrong. The vast majority of people we encountered were incredibly kind to me, my wife Hannah, and my baby son Harris. San Francisco hospitality gives our vaunted Southern hospitality a run for its money.

Similarly, despite the Southern view of San Francisco as a hippy paradise, it’s perhaps the most capitalistic place I’ve ever visited, with more startup companies than you can shake a stick at. The flip side is the pervasive gentrification, which is reflected by a growing homeless problem, many of my Bay Area friends fleeing the city, and anti-gentrification protests.

What about myths surrounding the show itself? Long ago, when the 12-year-old me imagined being a journalist at Macworld, I envisioned strolling around the show floor, being handed all sorts of free equipment.

There’s a sliver of truth to that, and Adam tells me there used to be more. As a member of the press, I did receive a free media badge, which gave me access nearly everywhere at the show, along with an invitation to a special preview event for a handful of vendors that paid to be there. And for my (otherwise unpaid) speaking duties, I received a lovely backpack full of goodies from exhibitors. More about the swag bag later, including a funny story.

But once the show started in earnest, exhibitors didn’t seem to notice my media badge. “Hi,” I would say, “I’m a journalist, and I’d like to learn more to see if we should cover your product in TidBITS.” “Sure,” they’d often reply, “we have a 30 percent off sale today.” It was distressing, because we need each other. Technology publications can’t afford to purchase everything they review, and companies, especially many of the startups at the show, need exposure to our readers. If I see something cool, I want to help spread the word, but some exhibitors made that nigh on impossible.

If you’re attending Macworld with your own hard-earned money, the floor can be a great place to shop, as there are often deep discounts. For the best deals, wait until early afternoon on the last day of the show. Any later, and exhibitors might have left already. But before they do, they want to get rid of as much stock as possible to avoid the hassle and expense of shipping it home, so you can buy many items for a song. If you live in the Bay Area, a $30 floor pass on the closing Saturday can lead to a shopping extravaganza.

Schmoozing — The real win of attending Macworld for me was meeting people. It’s still a fantastic place to meet the stars of the Apple community and make new friends. I met dozens of people, including fans of TidBITS and my “Take Control of Apple TV” book, fellow media types whose work I admire, and of course, at last, my TidBITS colleagues. TidBITS is entirely decentralized, and the same is generally true of the industry as a whole, so Macworld is essential for providing a single time and place when everyone can gather.

The best thing about the Apple community is that it’s as egalitarian as it gets. People you might think of as celebrities are just folks, and if you see them, they don’t mind if you walk up, introduce yourself, and say hello. The only thing to remember is that we geeks don’t always have the best social skills, so if someone seems uncomfortable or distracted after a simple introduction, it likely isn’t anything you said.

The Panels — Macworld also provides an opportunity to see great talks and panels, although some require a more expensive Conference Pass. There were many great speakers this year, even beyond my TidBITS colleagues. My real thrill, though, was being invited to participate.

First, I competed in the sport of kings — the Macworld Pundit Showdown, a “game” where the moderator (in this case, Macworld’s Philip Michaels) asks the panel questions, and assigns points based on how much he likes the answer. The tone is tricky, as it’s a mix of serious and sarcastic answers. I went up against Roberto Baldwin of Wired, UC Irvine’s Andrew Laurence, and TechHive Senior Editor Susie Ochs, and was narrowly defeated by the quick-witted Susie. It was a lot of fun representing TidBITS, and you can listen to the audio at Macworld.

My next panel was “The NSA and You,” which I had been working on for months, and it went better than I could have hoped. My guests included Kim Zetter from Wired, journalist Quinn Norton, our own Joe Kissell and Rich Mogull, and the EFF’s Parker Higgins, who were fantastic. My only regret is that we had time for only 5 of the more than 20 questions I had prepared. But the answers were incredibly deep and well thought out.

To be frank, the whole thing is kind of a blur now. But there was much more consensus than I had imagined. Here’s the gist:

  • While mass surveillance may not have an immediately noticeable impact on our daily lives, it has a chilling effect on journalism, and the secret law that enables mass surveillance is a long-term threat to democracy.

  • Do people care about privacy? Yes, but the Internet is still young, and we are still learning to adapt — many people don’t realize what data is being collected about them. Quinn Norton told a hilarious story about tricking her hacker friends in Anonymous by creating a trail of fake addresses online. When they tried to find out where she lived, they found nothing but phonies.

  • Should we trust Apple? No, nor should we put all of our faith in any company. But, as Rich Mogull explained, Apple has far better privacy protections and security measures than most of its peers.

  • What can we do to stop mass surveillance? If the NSA targets you, there’s not much you can do, but basic security precautions, protecting your data online, and using encryption all make mass surveillance more expensive. At the same time, more security means less convenience, so each user has to find the right balance, something Joe covers in “Take Control of Your Online Privacy.”

The room filled up as the panel rolled on, and afterward, the stage was rushed by the crowd, who peppered the panelists with questions. Thanks again to Parker, Kim, Rich, Quinn, and Joe, all of whom were utterly fascinating and fun to talk to. They’ve expressed interest in revisiting the topic in a much longer panel, so if you’d like to see that in 2015, let the Macworld/iWorld organizers know!

Aggravations — I had a blast at Macworld. The city is wonderful, the attendees were great, and IDG World Expo’s Paul Kent and Kathy Moran, who keep the wheels turning, were awesome to work with. However, the event staff — many of whom may have been temps — weren’t always so capable or amiable.

Remember the aforementioned swag bag? I took mine back to the hotel, only for my wife to text me a couple of hours later to tell me that there was an iPad inside with the Find My iPhone alert sounding off. After a terrifying hour or two, I figured out that the speaker office attendant had accidentally handed me a bag that another speaker left with them. Fortunately, it didn’t take long to set things right. In the end, the incident was more funny than disturbing, but it was a bit much at the time.

More troubling was an incident that occurred the next morning, while trying to get to the main stage for the Pundit Showdown. Philip Michaels wanted us there at 10:45 AM for audio setup. But the event security wouldn’t let any of us in, including Philip, until 11:00 AM, making for a bit of an on-stage scramble to get miked up.

Worst was what happened during my NSA panel. Paul and Kathy had given my wife an All Access pass so she could sit in on my panel, but security wouldn’t let her in with our baby, who was being well-behaved. Unfortunately, this happened during the panel, when there wasn’t much I could do, but afterwards I blew up at the guard in front of everyone. I was afraid that I had gone overboard, but a few folks quietly thanked me afterward. Given what Adam later told me about 2003, when IDG World Expo caused a huge fuss by banning children under 16 with almost no notice (“Macworld Expo New York’s Ill-Advised Age Policy,” 28 July 2003), I believe this was an isolated incident. But still…

As I learned from listening in on some random conversations throughout the rest of the event, several others had been bullied or harassed by event staff. I sincerely hope that these bad experiences don’t make attendees regret coming to the show, especially those who came at great expense. But if my wife and I were treated that way with All Access and Media passes, I hate to think what regular attendees might have experienced.

I don’t mean to paint Macworld as being monitored by hard-nosed thugs. Most of the staff were polite and helpful. But that wasn’t true across the board and will hopefully be addressed next year.

Cirque du Mac — No Macworld adventure is complete without attending the exclusive Cirque du Mac party. The event, hosted by The Mac Observer, features acrobatic dancers, a healthy amount of free booze, and a performance by the Macworld All-Star Band, featuring Paul Kent, Bob LeVitus, Duane Straub, Chris Breen, Chuck La Tournous, Bryan Chaffin, and Dave Hamilton.

Don’t brush Cirque du Mac off as a lame nerd event. Apple geeks know how to party. The drinks are strong, the band amazing, and best of all, it’s your only chance to see Adam and Tonya tearing it up on the dance floor.

So, how do you get into this exclusive thing? It’s billed as invite-only, but don’t let that dissuade you. If you follow @MacworldExpo and @MacObserver on Twitter, there are several chances to score free tickets. Also, speakers generally receive a ticket in the swag bag; since I already had some, I gave mine to one of my Twitter followers.

Travel Tips — If you’ve always wanted to attend Macworld, let me offer some tips.

Where to stay? There are two basic hotel options. If you’re trying to save money, places like The Mosser are fairly inexpensive but have tiny rooms. For a larger room and snazzier environment, you can pay more — sometimes a lot more — at traditional hotels like the Marriott Marquis. But there is a third option, which a number of people — including Adam and Tonya and a number of MacObserver editors — availed themselves of this year: Airbnb. It’s a service that connects travelers with normal people who have rooms, apartments, or even entire houses to rent out
temporarily. It’s more like staying at a friend’s place, or even with a friend, but it can be more spacious and more relaxed than a hotel, while simultaneously being less expensive.

No matter where you stay, be sure to check out the bar at the top of the Marriott for a stunning view of the city.

While I was nervous about it beforehand, I’m glad I brought my son Harris, who is better traveled at 7 months than I was at 17 years. If you do bring the kids, but need a night on the town, I heartily recommend American Child Care, who will send a nanny to your room. At $30 an hour, it was reasonable, and worth it to give my wife a much-deserved sanity break. Our sitter, Lauren, was far more qualified than Hannah and I are, and she was great with our sometimes cantankerous child.

Once the kids are taken care of, the good news is that it’s almost impossible to have a bad meal or cocktail in the Moscone area, so feel free to browse. There are plenty of options for every price range, but if you’re unsure, look for recommendations on Yelp. And if you do want to make reservations, the OpenTable service is far easier than calling around. Both have iPhone apps as well.

Conclusion — Attending Macworld has been a dream since I was 12, and 18 years later, it didn’t disappoint. I couldn’t have asked for better guides than Adam, Tonya, and the rest of the TidBITS crew. I did just about everything one could conceivably do at the show — I interviewed exhibitors, participated in panels, met amazing people I’ve looked up to for years, partied hard, and worked harder.

I’ve always felt as though there was — somewhere — a tribe of people I belonged to, and now I’ve finally found them. See you at Macworld/iWorld in San Francisco next year!

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