Macworld Expo: Far From Dead

Macworld Expo is Anything But a Dying Show
With all the press about how Macworld Conference & Expo 2010 was going to be a death march, the last gasp of a once great show, adrift without Apple's glory shining down upon us all, a funny thing happened: the show didn't suck. Not only didn't it suck, it was rather solid success. I had six conference sessions to run, and some decent time on the show floor, and in comparison to the last two Boston Macworlds, which were death marches, this show really rocked.

The Sessions

(Disclaimer: This year I was actually involved in putting together the Mac IT track, and presented six sessions across the Mac IT track, the User Conference, and on the Main Stage.)

In my two day session, "Mac IT Boot Camp," we had about 50 people for both days. This doesn't sound like much, but when you're talking about a session that digs into things like SNMP and packet tracing, that's a pretty good number. We, (Chuck Goolsbee, Julian Koh, Tom Limoncelli and I) all answered some really excellent questions, and thought that the audience really enjoyed the material.

We also saw something happen that we'd never seen before: the audience took our advice that "you are all instructors, you all know something that someone else doesn't, you should all exchange business cards and stay in touch" to heart, and created a Google doc with everyone's name and contact info on it. That's pretty amazing, in terms of the attendees deciding to not let the learning end just because the session did.

That kind of interest was consistent across every session I was a part of. For the session on "Administering Adobe CS," aka Beat "Meet the Installer Team," both the audience and the presenters were asking questions, taking notes, exchanging information, and starting to end years of bad communication by being in the same room and, well, communicating.

Adobe, quite sensibly, sent no PR people. The panel was nothing but engineers, engineering managers, and program managers. They weren't there to spin or manage opinion, they were there to talk to customers and present what they were doing, and going to do help make those customers' lives easier. The questions were direct and pointed, so were the answers. No one danced around anything. It wasn't just the attendees that took something away from it. The installer team, who were taking copious notes, were able to collect a lot of actual customer concerns and needs, much of which parallels their own. The difference being, when it comes from a customer, it's more important.

Same deal with the Administering Macs in an Exchange Environment session. I came away with a ton of really neat information (many thanks to Bill Smith, who showed us all some awesome Entourage setup tricks that I'd never even thought of). Again, a room full of people who didn't just silently sit there and listen, but who were asking questions, offering up comments and suggestions, and really participating in the session they'd paid no small amount of money for. Everyone, regardless of role, was actively getting the most they could out of their sessions.

From what I heard out of the other presenters, this was the norm this year, and as a speaker, that kind of audience rocks. It makes my job much easier, when the audience is pushing me with questions and comments.

That's not to say everything was perfect. There were some unfortunate logistical errors, such as a shortage of power adaptors in the session rooms, and some real problems in the hands-on labs with regard to the in-class networks, and for the people in those classes, that's not good. That's a shame because, normally, that kind of stuff just works, and I hope that when the show's after-analysis is done, Paul Kent and his staff can identify the causes of those problems so they will be avoided next year.

The Show Floor
The show floor was smaller. There's no ifs, ands, or buts about it. Fewer vendors, less space, and less people. However, square footage, booth numbers and body counts are a wee part of things. Energy is what I look at. Now, to be honest, the most energetic conference I've ever seen was one I couldn't go to: a welding conference in Chicago. True, it's a show diverted to fire and melting metal. That's too cool to be boring. But still, great energy.

I went to the penultimate Macworld Boston, and while IDG had tried really hard, and the conference audiences were great, the show was kinda dead. Very zombieish. I mean, people were having a good time, but the vibe was off. I wanted to be optimistic, but... yeah.

This show floor was nothing like that. First, it was crowded. I mean "should I just put my bag down and wait for a few so that I might not be in pain when I finally start moving again" crowded. People were having fun, the main stage area was full, or close to it, every time I walked by while something was happening. The floor had a really good vibe to it, good energy, the kind of energy that says "yeah, we'll be back next year, and we'll rock even harder."

As far as the vendors went, well, I got the same amount of good info this year I get every year. Two or three "wow" moments, some offline conversations that will turn into something really cool, and quite a few companies that go in my "When we need it, we'll call you" file. Because they took the time to show up and talk to me, they bubble to the top of my list of people to buy stuff from.

That's something that the vendors who sat this Macworld out, or were doing invite-only events, missed out on: mindshare. For example, iStorage Pro. They make RAIDs, from little home/SMB - use boxes to 16-drive rack mounts.

Now, the RAID/Storage market is crowded. It is really hard for a smaller company to rise above the background noise and get noticed. iStorage is competing with everyone from HP and EMC down to Drobo. Had they not been on the show floor, I'd have never seen them. There's too much noise in that market. But because they were there, I had a chance to talk to them, in person. I found out that they have some really nice kit, at reasonable prices, which supports remote monitoring via SNMP, (something that continually keeps Drobo off my radar), supports RAID 6, you can add expansion units if needed, and more.

Since I'm always in the market for more storage, meeting up with a company that will take the time to talk to me, and answer my questions is something I value. The iStorage guys are now ahead of quite a few other people who weren't there. That holds true for Kanex, Microvision, and others. Those companies are no longer just ads on a Web site, or a spec page. I got to see their products in action, talk to the people behind the product, ask the questions, in person, that I wanted to ask.

There may be other products and companies that compete with all of those, but they weren't there. All they are to me are Web pages and product specs, maybe with pretty pictures. I wasn't the only IT guy there, and I certainly didn't have the biggest network out of all the IT people there. There were a lot of consultants there, too. They buy stuff for clients. Guess what companies are now ahead of the game for attendees?

Yeah. Not the ones who sat it out to see what happens. I guarantee Rogue Amoeba picked up customers solely because they were there, and their customers were able to play with their product and talk to the Rogue Amoeba folks, who are a fun crowd, mind you.

Sure, coming to Expo is expensive. Hotels. Booth space. Food. It's long hours standing around and talking about the same thing, over and over. But the mindshare you pick up? Huge. That's something that you can't measure on a spreadsheet or account for on a depreciation schedule. But it's real, and it's real important.

So to all the companies that weren't there, well, I'm sure if you try real hard, we'll notice you, too. But you're going to have to try a lot harder than your competitors who put forth the effort to show up and talk to people, and that's just to get noticed. I'm sure it will work out okay. Mostly okay.

Challenge Met, Level Awarded
The IDG team had a heck of a challenge this year, and even with the glitches, more than met it. Excellent sessions, a solid show floor, and some top-notch feature presentations. I'm already planning for 2011. As I've said all along, Macworld is bigger than any one company, and Macworld Conference & Expo 2010 proved that rather well.