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Andy IhnatkoBoston, Macworld Expo, Show Bizness

by - July 2nd, 2004



Show Bizness

By now, many of you have made the altogether foolish decision to come here to Boston for Macworld Expo. And when I call this idea Foolish, I of course am saying nothing against the show itself. Macworld Expo promises to be a palace of delights as always -- more on this Palace later -- but I live here and life in Boston in July -- this July, possibly the most improbable July in Boston's 350-year history -- is just two blocks North of hellish. I'll be thrilled to receive my (inevitable) Pulitzer Prize but if they intend to give it to me anytime within the next four weeks, they can just mail it to me. I have no intention of attending any sort of awards luncheon because until the Democratic National Convention is all over except for the vice and corruption hearings, any flight that originates out of our downtown airport instead of the Peter Pan Bus Terminal in Waltham is folly, pure folly.

As a (once-proud) metropolis, we're only just starting to recover from the Big Dig project. We took every major artery in and out of Boston and buried them underground. That was cool enough, but we also had the bitchin' idea of doing it without going through that tedious step of shutting down any of the old roads first. Instead, we wanted to tunnel underneath them like Charles Bronson in "The Great Escape," not arousing the suspicions of our Nazi wardens until we had successfully tunneled all the way to the treeline and were doing our best to blend in with the simple peasant folk of Somerville and Allston.

And all it cost us -- well, you, actually; this was the largest public works project since Apollo, or very nearly -- was $18,000,000,000. We spent the money wisely; the original plan was for all the cars to shoot from I-93 to Charlestown through clean, air-conditioned pneumatic tubes, but when the original $300,000,000 budget started to climb out of control, draconian measures needed to be made.

The upshot of all this is that for the longest time, nobody had any real idea how to get to and from the airport. Not even the folks who'd lived in Boston all their lives. My dad often gives me a lift to or from Logan International when I travel, and the change in the man was shocking. He once possessed what could only be described as Kryptonian skills at airport navigation. He must have driven me to Logan twenty or thirty times and under all conceivable travel conditions, the trip always took exactly 26 minutes and he never took the same route twice. It was almost as though they kept moving the airport and my Dad was the only person they told.

But then, midway through the Big Dig, roads changed, landmarks disappeared, and the spirit of old-fashioned sportsmanship and fair play disappeared with them. One time my Dad and I spent nearly an hour touring the livelier parts of the city in an increasingly-frustrating search for the connector to I-93 South. It turned out that the public-works department had shut down the old connector and built the new one, but they weren't going to put up any signs directing people towards it for at least another two months.

Big Dig problems are now largely behind us, but we're still stuck with Logan International Airport, that glittering tangle of architecture fused together by the heat of impatience and bad ideas. The Mayor intended to have a big pile of upgrades completed in time for the Convention, but well, it really didn't work out that way at all.

I don't think I can adequately explain what a problem the Democratic National Convention is. For a big-city mayor, it's like Christmas. It's a big event and you're avidly looking forward to it and you want it to be a big hit for everyone who's coming to your house but you're so dazzled by the event that all you can think about is how thrilled the kids will be when they see their new bicycles. You don't think about how you're going to be up all night on Christmas Eve putting the damned things together...or what you're going to do if Christmas morning comes and all you've succeeded in creating is one bicycle that looks like it has been dropped from a great height on top of a second bicycle, plus a pile of leftover parts and reason for a jury to believe that your child's so-called "bike accident" was all just a scheme to reap a huge financial settlement from the city bus system.

So suffice to say that the City intended to have lots of cool things in place -- including that fully modernized and upgraded airport -- and it's now 5 AM and they still don't know if the part their holding is the seat or part of the braking system. What I'm saying is that if you're flying in, you should expect delays. Many cannier travellers are getting to their hotels with the help of a confederate waiting in the lobby, who sets a small fire shortly after their flight's scheduled arrival time. When they climb into a taxi they can simply direct the driver to follow the lights and the sounds of emergency vehicles.

We also got ourselves a brand-new convention center. Getting the Boston Convention And Exhibition Center finished in time for the Democratic Convention required a great deal of lateral thinking on the part of the contractors, and word is that many of the halls are, in fact, nothing more than cunningly-painted backdrops stretched across key entranceways. So look carefully before entering, lest you break your nose on the a trompe l'oeil. And as you enter, you're also encouraged to pick up a marble tile and a fistful of grout from the bins that have been set up at every doorway. If you could then stick it up anywhere you might spot some exposed concrete or drywall, that'd be a big help.

For all that, the Democratic Convention has moved out of the BCEC and into the Fleet Center...home to the Boston Celtics (last championship: 1986) and the Bruins (last Stanley Cup: 1972) as well as several music and cultural events (including six dates by the Backstreet Boys in one year alone). So the Dems clearly will have a certain amount of bad mojo to work through. This affects you, the Macworld attendee, in that after the police strikes, the wild cost overruns, the garnishing of nearly all taxi and coach services, the unavailability of restaurants and catering, and the shutdown of all major arteries through the city, the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority chose to demonstrate that they're every bit as capable of shredding Bostonians' day-to-day quality of life as anybody else and have instituted a random stop-and-search policy of all subway and bus patrons.

This is my way of saying that I might be late for my two scheduled presentations. The first is "MacQuarium Live!", Tuesday at 4:30 on the "Geeks And Gadgets" stage, during which I will be taking apart a Macintosh SE and converting it into a working aquarium. So I'll be carrying sharp tools and weird old electronics. The second is the MacBrainiac Challenge (Wednesday at 3, I suppose I'll find out where it is soon enough). As team captain, I must bring my own thingamabob for buzzing in for questions, and this will involve a big red button salvaged from industrial machinery, a battery, and lots of exposed wires and duct tape.

So on both of those days I intend to make sure I'm wearing my good underwear, because if I am indeed Stopped and Searched, the Stopping will probably begin with the unholstering of a gun and the Searching will involve enjoying the extended hospitality of the Department of Homeland Security at Camp X-Ray. Even if you're not carrying bombmaking materials, commuting to Macworld Expo in a tanker filled with liquified natural gas will be only slightly more difficult than simply carrying a backpack that contains anything more alarming than a cheese sandwich.

But again, none of this should reflect poorly upon the Expo itself. Many folks dissing the show cite the shorter list of exhibitors and the (predicted) smaller turnout, compared with the last time we had a Macworld Expo here in the Land of the Cod. This is a good point but I have a ready counterpoint: well, duhhh.

The last time Boston hosted Macworld Expo it was still in the way-hey-hey days of the 1990's. Macworld filled the two largest exhibition halls the city had. The exhibitors strode the streets of this city like made men, destroying property and murdering at the slightest whim, knowing that with the pillowcases stuffed with simoleons that they casually kept back at their hotel suites, they could buy their way out of damned-near anything. If you walked near the Power Computing booth and it looked like you were about to sneeze, a marketing rep would hand you a Mint/Near Mint copy of Uncanny X-Men #1 to blow your nose with. Members of the press would receive a Honus Wagner tobacco card.

What I'm saying is that the Nineties are the Nineties and it's an entirely different world right now and the best thing to do is accept that and take Macworld Expo Boston 2004 for what it is: a modern technology show.

I've been thinking a lot about the Show Business this year. No matter what sort of conference I attend, the scope and space of technology shows continue to contract. Even the Windows-oriented shows are shrinking. The last PC Expo I attended was an embarrassing shadow of the New York Macworld Expo that sat in that exact same convention center only two or three months earlier. At least Macworld was a real show. Stepping onto the PC Expo show floor was like stepping onto a movie set. They'd "dressed" just enough of the Javits Center that Ben Affleck and Reese Witherspoon could have their scene together but if you walked past the busy and dense patch of boothage and peered around a corner, it was nothing but bare walls and floors and workmen doing whatever it is that they do now that smoking is banned in all public places.

It's hard to let go of the glory days but I have seen the future and it is in Conferences, not Expos. Case in point: the first Macworld Conference, which took place in London this May. The "show floor," such as it was, consisted of tables staffed by the conference's corporate sponsors...only three or four in all, hugging the walls of the common space where attendees could sip at a coffee and plot out the rest of their day. The conference was focused entirely on classes, lectures, and panels. Attendees didn't pay their money to talk to marketing reps about inkjet printers. They came to hear experts teach classes in AppleScript and iMovie, or to spend an hour listening to dozens of tips for getting the most out of Panther, or to lob questions at three professionals sitting at a table who were there with no agenda other than to focus on the attendees' individual problems and needs.

I had a great time. I came to deliver the keynote and give an AppleScript class but happily added two more sessions to my schedule when another speaker had to cancel at the last minute. It was a lot like when I used to work at my user group's summer camp of adult education, and spent a whole week at a junior college focusing on getting a small group of campers confident and competent with a collection of hardware and software that had been giving them fits for weeks. The Conference lasted all of two days and had few of my usual touchstones of attending a show, but it was one of the highlights of the year's calendar.

It made me think of another conference that had gone well. Coincidentally, it was also a conference where I keynoted: the O'Reilly Mac OS X Conference. The O'Conference is sort of a kinder, gentler version of WWDC, targeted at developers and administrators and focused chiefly on existing Mac OS technologies, not future ones. It was like the Macworld Conference: it was all about the sessions and the panels and ultimately the needs of the attendees. It did have one great thing that London lacked: a large hotel atrium filled with banquet tables, and WiFi access points acting as one big porchlight to attract attendees in their downtime. And if getting your information through live wetware instead of from a Web page or through a book is one of the great values of coming out for a conference, then the second one is being able to talk shop with other people who are just as stymied as you are.

GeekCruises' MacMania cruise to Hawaii: nothing but user sessions, punctuated by rum drinks, buffets, and soaks in the Jacuzzi. And now CalEvents is getting into the action with a new touring show they call Digital Lifestyle Expo. Hitting four cities in its first year (starting with Long Beach, California on August 13-15), it'll be sort of a hybrid between a Macworld Conference and a Macworld Expo. There'll be a show floor, but not an enormous one, and the two days are packed with classes and multiplatform sessions on electronic music, pictures, video, publishing, and other miracles of this Push Button World of Tomorrow.

Last year I was more than a little pessimistic about Macworld Boston 2004's chances at success. All of the show organizers I had met were working extremely hard and putting lots of good ideas into the show, and they were all completely confident that they were adapting the show for modern times and future viability. I was hoping for the best...but my expectations were pretty low.

But now I've been to many shows where the focus was on education, not spectacle, and it's turned me around. For new and intermediate users, who ordinarily would have to learn a certain app through trial and error, weeks of fumbling and accidental successes can be collapsed down into a single session, followed by ten minutes of well-directed Q&A.

Macworld Expo has always had a mandate to educate attendees, but as someone who's been attending Macworld Expo Boston since before he could drive, I can say that this was never its main spirit. Macworld Expo was always an opportunity to come by and soak up the Big Picture. Even if you couldn't care less about financial software, you had the chance to see nearly every title available. Even if your interest in graphics didn't go beyond a desire to take the little duckie in the Word 5.0 clip-art library and color it purple, you got a chance to see what sort of images and video your hardware could pumping out with the right skills and software. And you got to see freaks. Freaks, freaks, freaks! Glorious freaks of all sizes, shapes, denominations, medication levels, and backgrounds. In one trip through the show floor and after attending just one popular session, you were plugged into the entirety of The Macintosh Experience.

Maybe it's not such a bad thing that this big shift in show focus has happened. The spotlight has swung around 180 degrees and is now focused squarely on the users. It's not about the state of the Macintosh as a video tool; it's about Joe Schmoe and his desire to turn three hours of wedding videos into a 30 minute DVD that he might actually sort of tolerate being forced to watch twice a year for the rest of his married life. It's also about showing an office tech-support person how to support Mac users, and convincing him to at least try the same Kool Aid that The Rest Of Us have been slugging back blindly and avidly since 1984.

So to all Macworld Boston attendees I say this: enjoy our quaint country ways. Seafood is cheap and plentiful and you should explore this fine opportunity to sample fish outside of frozen-stick form. Coolidge Corner (right on the MBTA's Green Line) has the best deli in the Northeast (Zaftigs Deli), as well as Boston's best theater (the Coolidge Corner Movie Theater) and independent bookstore (the Brookline Booksmith). Before you arrive, decide what you want to do if and when the transit police ask to search your bag. Try to resist the urge to punch the people whose job it is to make your stay here in the city as pleasant as possible; they're doing the best they can under trying circumstances. If you happen to bump into someone who doesn't seem to belong here and is dressed a little too well to be a Mac user, cozy up to him or her: they're probably a high-placed official in the Democratic party who's arrived early for the Convention. A swap of business cards could move you a step closer to getting a pothole fixed or getting an unemployed in-law a job as a county commissioner somewhere.

Believe all of that. I also think if you come to Macworld Expo with priorities about what you want to learn and what skills you want to work on, you'll forget all about Macworld Expo Boston 1994, which was the year in which Microsoft ran out of free baseball caps to give away and everyone who stopped by their booth thereafter walked away with a voucher for a free 19" color TV, redeemable at the Lechmere store in Cambridge.

(Don't act so disappointed. It was a Magnavox.)

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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