A Fan's Notes: Macworld Without Apple

Like most Mac fans, the news that Apple is pulling out of the big Macworld Conference and Expo in San Francisco struck me like a surprise sucker punch. I'm not sure what's more shocking: the idea that Apple CEO Steve Jobs won't be giving the annual keynote or the fact that Apple is pulling out of all future Macworlds after 2009.

Over the past decade and a half, I've attended numerous Expos and keynotes, whether in San Francisco, Boston or New York. The experience was always unique as both a Mac user and a journalist covering technology. There truly is nothing like a Steve Jobs keynote; The drama and excitement of the audience are always palpable -- from the time lines form early in the morning to the moment we're all let in, from the time Steve took the stage to the anticipation of those three words. Everyone waited for "one more thing."

The dramatic keynote was something Jobs brought to the Macworld Expo when he returned to Apple in the late 1990s. They were major media events that everyone wanted to witness or cover first-hand, guaranteed to attract a rare mix of Mac writers and bloggers (many of whom I wouldn't meet otherwise) and mainstream reporters. The keynotes transformed Macworld from a trade show into a worldwide media event.

In recent years, however, Apple has become adept at creating its own media circus without the need for an outside organizer like IDG World Expos, which produces the Macworld Expo. Apple's town hall events, with their select media invitations, now draw much the same attention once limited to the Macworld keynote. Since Apple has complete control over its events, at a fraction of the cost of anchoring a trade show, it's easy to see Apple's logic in backing out of next month's Macworld, which runs Jan. 5-9.

More than just a keynote

The move has been coming ever since Jobs started comparing traffic through Apple's retail stores to the number of Macworld attendees. That said, Macworld has always been much more than an Apple retail experience and something beyond just a showcase for a Jobs keynote. It has been an international event at which Mac professionals, enthusiasts, and countless vendors can meet and learn from each other -- and from a select group of Mac experts on hand for the conference.

Indeed, Macworld has been an annual training event for many companies. The diversity of programs and workshops covered a range of topics, with Mac IT tracks providing some of the most comprehensive Mac-centric training outside the company's annual WorldWide Developer Conference. It was invariably a great training opportunity -- one that was often lost in the focus on the keynote and the myriad announcements from other vendors at the show.

The breadth of vendors was an under-appreciated part of the Macworld experience. Every facet of the Mac and iPod /iPhone accessory universe seemed to be on the show floor, as was every manner of Mac software developer. While big vendors like Adobe, Quark and Microsoft traditionally had the largest presence after Apple, with smaller vendors introducing everything from contraptions used to organize iPod earbud cables to vintage Macs turned into art pieces. No Apple store can match the diversity of products available at Macworld, to say nothing of the chance to quiz reps from any company about their wares.

Still, the biggest booth -- if you can really call it a booth -- has always rightfully been Apple. Taking up more floor space than anyone else, Apple always offered training classes, introductions to new products, and plenty of room to see or handle the latest, greatest technology on hand. The space was always staffed with a veritable army of Apple employees; It's hard to imagine the show without Apple's booth, particularly when other major vendors like Adobe and Belkin have already said they won't participate in next month's show.

A sense of community

So, what does this mean for Apple and the Mac Community?

Despite some convulsions in the blogosphere -- and some gyrations in Apple's stock price -- I don't see Apple's decision s having a negative effect on the company. Apple has been slowly backing away from Macworld as a venue for product launches. SInce the arrival of the iPod, Apple has been using smaller and more targeted invitation-only events. Coupled with its growing world presence, thanks to the well thought-out marketing campaign for Mac OS X and the popularity of the iPhone, I see the rationale for focusing on those broader efforts rather than a single trade show.

But Macworld isn't all about Apple, and this is where Apple's decision could hurt. For major vendors, the transition to marketing without a trade show may come naturally. And it may even be a good cost-cutting move. But for smaller companies dependent on media attention and their own Web sites for sales it could spell disaster. Macworld is often the only chance they have to get the word out about their offerings.

The other casualty may be the Mac community. For many hard-core Mac users, Macworld isn't just a trade show or a training event. It's a chance to interact with other Mac users, see favorite authors and columnists in person, network, and even at times to be inspired by new products, and new ideas.

Entrance to the keynote was a coveted prize and participation in conference sessions was perhaps a business need or personal luxury. But for many fans just being at Macworld -- seeing all the Mac-related products and talking about Apple in both a personal and business context -- was the crux of the event. Everyone, for a few days, spoke the same language.

This sense of subculture has been on the decline for a while, however. As Apple has gained ground and popularity, I've had many conversations with Expo attendees that the sense of a "Mac community" has slipped. There's a bit of ambivalence about Apple's focus on consumer electronics and about seeing Microsoft as an ally instead of an arch-rival.

Is this it for Macworld?

After Apple pulled out of the summer version of Macworld on the east coast, it took only one year before IDG World Expos canceled the event completely. Even the last Macworld New York that Apple participated in was dramatically scaled back from earlier years. If it is to avoid a similar fate, Macworld (and other shows like Apple Expo Paris) will need to radically transform themselves.

Although IDG World Expos has confirmed that Macworld 2010 will go on, it's hard to envision the show without Apple to anchor the event. The show floor will likely be much smaller and without major keynote announcements, it won't garner as much media attention. Nor will it draw as many people.

If Macworld can be refocused as a user and business training conference rather than a theatrical media production, it could yet become a valuable tool for helping to launch Apple further as a consumer company and an enterprise solution provider. It's, however, hard to see such a refocused Expo as the international draw we've seen over the years. A better long-term approach may for it to devolve into a series of smaller conferences scattered across the U.S. and the world.

The end of the Steve-note

With the announcement that Phil Schiller will do the final Apple keynote at Macworld -- it's scheduled for Jan. 6 -- the rumor mill swarmed with new concerns about Jobs' health. I think the decision to withdraw has been building for quite some time, and it has little to do with health concerns. More likely, Apple is trying to step down the focus on Macworld in general and Jobs in particular. Either way, it's hard to imagine anyone in any industry being able to make an international audience hang on his every word the way Jobs has done for the past 10 years.

It's easy to paint the end of Apple's participation in Macworld as an earth-shattering announcement, but the truth is that both Apple and and its fans will go on. The pre-expo speculation will die down, but Apple will continue to innovate and continue to make news with product announcements throughout the year. Still, without a doubt, this was a dramatic move by Apple. But that's part and parcel with Jobs and company -- always leaving us wanting just one more thing.

Ryan Faas is a frequent Computerworld contributor specializing in Mac and multiplatform network issues. Find more about him at RyanFaas.com.

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