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Andy Ihnatko

Behind The Curtain At PC Expo
September 19th, 2003

I'm looking for tumbleweeds. There really should be tumbleweeds here. Lord knows that if this were a really bad prime-time cartoon (ie, the worst episodes of "The Simpsons" or the best episodes of "Family Guy") the director would choose this moment to send a tumbleweed scrolling across the floor, to underscore the obvious fact that if there's anything going on anywhere in the world, then this is the place where they specifically decided not to do it.

Surprise number one: I am in New York City, attending one of the East Coast's biggest annual technology shows. Once an immense, sprawling affair, it's had to seriously downscale itself since the way-hey-hey days of the early Nineties. As part of the downscaling, they've also decided on a name change, to hopefully broaden the event's focus and make it a more valuable buy for exhibitors and attendees.

Surprise number two: I'm not talking about this year's MacCreateWorldProExpo, which is what I've been calling the former Macworld Expo because I can't remember "Macworld CreativePro" and doing a Google search for the actual name would require, you know, effort.

Surprise number three, aka The Big Payoff: this is PC Expo, freshly-renamed TechXNY...which historically has been the largest Windows-oriented trade show on the East Coast, second in the country only to Comdex.  


PC Expo Day One: The main hall
at the Javits Center.
 

It was pretty ironic. A couple of months ago, Mac Expo was held in this exact same spot. It was no smaller than this -- it certainly seemed bigger to me -- and yet plenty of print and online pundits perceived the show as a dismal failure and symbol of Apple's so-called ongoing erosion.

And that wasn't the case at all. I think these commentators couldn't see past the fact that the organizers had put the entire show in a single exhibit hall. It should have been done years ago. With this one decision, they did away with the single most troubling feature of this or any other modern trade show: The Big Colorful Curtain.

Tex Avery (he was Chuck Jones before Chuck Jones was Chuck Jones) used to pull a gag where his characters would be in a breakneck chase and then all of a sudden, they and the forest they're running through have turned black-and-white.

Everyone exchanges puzzled looks. They backtrack to a sign which they whipped by so fast that they couldn't read it:

TECHNICOLOR ENDS HERE

When you're at a convention -- Mac, Windows, Battlestar Galacti-con, whatever -- and you happen across an Enormously Long Colorful Curtain, it's actually a sign that reads

THIS IS WHERE THE INDUSTRY RAN OUT OF MONEY AND INTEREST

There's just no way around that. I mean, when you enter EvilCorporateLizardBastard Arena to see Bruce Springsteen, you never encounter an huge blue-and-white curtain that blocks off a perfectly good 8,000 seat section. Those seats get offered for sale and by golly, they're sold. But to anyone who's attended a tech show year after year, The Curtain is a familiar fixture. It's like that black fungus that affects homeowners on "Dateline NBC." Every time you enter, you see that it's advanced a little closer to the front. That can't be good.

And yet for years, Mac Expo tried to fill the same enormous exhibit halls it occupied during the MacOS 7.0 days. You'd walk through half-filled hall after third-filled hall after closed-off hall, with those curtains doing for the show what a bad comb-over does for Dick Van Patten and Rudolph Giuliani. Meant to project an image of unchanged vitality, it only succeeds in making the wearer look perfectly absurd. I mean, would you want that sort of man serving on your town's Board of Education?

This year, reacting to Apple's vastly scaled-back participation, Mac Expo's organizers decided to lump the entire show into just one wing of the Javits Center. And sure, it threw some people at first, but the end result was a vastly-superior experience. CreativePro wasn't small: it was efficient. It was manageable. There was still a solid mix of big players and one-product developers...the difference was that the mom-and-pop shops were getting just as much attention as Adobe.

Well, more, actually, considering that Adobe didn't exhibit this year. But it's a valid point. Many exhibitors told me that this was the most productive show they've had in a long time. Not only did they get seen, but with a smaller room to work in, attendees spent less time walking and more time talking.

It's difficult to get hard numbers on the size of this year's show (it all comes down to whose data you choose to believe) but Mac Expo 2003 didn't feel any smaller than the 2002 edition. Apple left their Death Star-sized booth at home (choosing to arrive in an Imperial Star Cruiser instead), and that change was certainly felt. But it was still a great show, and there were still plenty of reasons to attend or exhibit. No show is unworthy of criticism but I thought that most of the negative commentary that appeared online and in print painted an unfair picture of Mac Expo NYC 2003.

I was so miffed by the Boston Globe's piece that I considered writing a letter to the editor. But I'd just be taking space away from some Brandeis sophomore who thinks he's the first one to get all upset about the Patriot Act. Plus, writing a letter would involve more of that "effort" thing.  

Back to this week. I took a cab straight from Penn Station to the Javits Center. I picked up my PC Expo/TechXNY press credentials and banged a right to enter the press room, on the off-chance that there might still be some free Cokes left. Alas, I encountered no snacks, but I did bump into my pal Becky, whom I first met when we were active volunteers for the Boston Computer Society's Macintosh User Group. She was tapping away at her TiBook, eagerly placing an order for the new 15" PowerBook.

Eventually we stopped talking about Macs. "So is there anything good on the show floor?" I asked, brightening an instant later when I (incorrectly) thought I saw a caterer coming in with more drinks.

Becky fixed me with a look and a tight smile. "Dead," she said. She used the sort of serious tone which, had the word been said under completely different circumstances, would indicate that I should drop the topic immediately if I didn't want to turn an impulsive and wholly accidental manslaughter into a second act of willful homicide.

Still, I had a little time before my first meeting so I decided to take a quick whip around. You know, just to take note of anything I wanted to be sure to see in detail later on.

45 minutes later, I was done.

Done. Done, done, done. I had seen everything that was there to be seen.

PC Expo took up Javits' main hall as well as the hall adjoining it. The first was curtained to about half its depth, or perhaps a little less. Making things worse, about half of that was taken up by a pavilion entitled "OutsourceWorld." China, Russia, Nepal, India, Pakistan, Romania...every nation of interest to stamp collectors and fans of Olympic gymnastics had a booth here. And each one wanted you to feel foolish for keeping a local soccer mom on staff to handle your SQL development. After all, there are people in Kyzyl who would be perfectly giddy to do the exact same job for pennies on the dollar...and I bet you didn't know that in their country, asking for a dental plan is considered a dishonor to one's ancestors!

(A US company had a booth as well, but I never spotted anyone sitting there. I have to conclude that the Ecuadoran company in the booth next door saw an opportunity; an hour before I walked past, the American reps got fired and their responsibilities were transferred to a call center in Quito.)

So, was there anything of value in the half of the half of the hall that was (a) open and (b) not promoting the sort of businesses that would make Michael Moore rethink his stance on gun violence? Hardly. A hefty percentage was given over to consultants. Left and right, banners promised to leverage infrastructure by mating productivity with connectivity, and other such tequila-fueled ramblings. I was really hard-pressed to find products or services that the average human could relate to in any fashion.

It was even bleaker in the adjoining hall. Only a corner of it was open. A 10-minute massage? Obtainable. A rampagingly quack-ey medical device that promises to treat diabetes via electrodes? You're covered. Oh, well, I want to be fair; HP had a big booth, as did Olympus. But the show was unrecognizable, compared with last year's PC Expo.

I did get to meet the guy with the barely-publishable name, who runs the Web site with the completely-unpublishable name. I read his site regularly and was pleased to be able to tell him so. So the other hall wasn't a complete loss.  


Me and He Whose Name Might
Break Your Company Firewall.
 

Members of the press always experience a trade show differently from The Humans, because we spend most of our time attending THE SECRET TRADE SHOW. The Javits contains a warren of little conference rooms where we get personal briefings. IBM wasn't on the show floor and they certainly weren't showing the public the prototype of an absolutely wonderful new notebook concept that they're thinking about producing. But at 4 PM I went where their e-mail told me to go and I knocked on the door it told me to knock on, and after accepting (finally!) a free Coke, I was ooh-ing and aah-ing over it.

As a point of fact, a lush, Epcot-like show floor would have been a drawback for me. When I committed to the trip last month, I chose to barnstorm it. I'd be in NYC for 26 hours: enough time for my meetings, enough time to go to Times Square and check out some strippers (specifically: the new revival of "Gypsy," starring Bernadette Peters and directed by Sam Mendes), enough time to have lunch with a pal of mine who works in midtown. But it's certainly not enough time to perform the same hard-target exploration of the show floor that I'd executed during this summer's Mac Expo, or the previous PC Expo.

I was worried about that. You walk the show floor because you hope you'll discover something unexpected and wonderful, something you've never heard of but instantly want to tell someone else about. On the train ride in, I weighed the possibility of writing off the non-refundable cost of my return ticket and spending another day in the city, to spend as much time on the show floor as I needed to.

But...wow. I would never have guessed that after just 45 minutes, I'd be walking out of there serenely confident that I'd seen everything and that there was no need to even consider returning. Sure, I wasn't disappointed (recap: free Cokes, cool notebook prototype, lunch with pal, strippers) but I can't imagine how some of the attendees might have felt (assuming they didn't come for the seminars), to say nothing of the exhibitors.


Me and my close personal friend Bernie, whom
I really know, honestly, she practically
wouldn't leave the theater until
we got a photo together this picture is not faked.
 

Needless to say, I'm carrying the story of PC Expo 2003 in my hip pocket. More than that, before the week's out I'm probably going to try to provoke someone into talking trash about Mac Expo, just so I can hit him with the story. I wish I were a better person, really. But I imagine the gestures I'll make as I build up to "...and half of that was an outsourcing expo!" and I think the end-effect will be well worth the blow to my image as a caring, sensitive being of light and positivity.

The folks behind Mac Expo (CreativePro; I'll say it: CreativePro) had their work cut out for them this year. And good golly. Next summer, they're not just saddled with a move to Boston but also with Apple's specific assurance that they won't be participating. Not in the Death Star, not in the Star Cruiser, not even in the double-chili TIE bomber that appeared in Episode 5.

OK, so there'll be no Apple. If this year's Mac Expo had been dismal like this year's PC Expo, I'd order a Carvel ice-cream cake inscribed with the legend "Mac Expo is done and buried" and then I'd be serving it out to the skeptical. I have to believe that people are more likely to take your message to heart when you deliver it on a cake; it's certainly not some impulsive, blurted-out sentiment, and besides, you've just given them cake -- so they're going to be on your side.

I'm optimistic about the Boston show, though. PC Expo may have been missing attendees and exhibitors compared to Mac Expo, but the thing that truly set it apart and below the Mac show was the fact that it was missing a sense of community. Was there any real identity to the groups that plodded the aisles? Any excitement? Any acknowledgement that a common impulse brought all these strangers together in the same place?

Overall, was there any sense that being here inside a convention hall was an improvement over being in Bryant Park watching two birds attack and eat a squirrel? I've seen both, dear friends, and I can say it with authority: no, there was not.

The success of Mac Expo Boston will hinge on the organizers' continued ability to preserve that sense of community. If they do, then the show will be a success, whether it takes place in the fabulous brand-new Boston Convention & Exhibition Center or in the downtown Radisson that hosts a bimonthly Sci-Fi and comicbook convention. So long as they have that, and I can get some free Cokes, I'll be happy.

digs the Mac, and has been writing about the Mac for longer than most of us could tell the difference between a bite of Apple Sauce from a byte of Apple code. You can read his monthly column at Macworld magazine, and his blog at the Colossal Waste of Bandwidth.

Andy's latest book is The Mac OS X Tiger Book (US$16.49 - Amazon).

You can send your comments directly to Andy, or you can also post your comments below.

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