Paul Kent: Macworld Expo 2012 Will Be a Festival

Macworld Expo 2012Forget the traditional increasingly stodgy Macworld Expo. The 2012 Expo is going to be something entirely new and different. Call it a “celebration” or a “festival.” Whatever you call it, Macworld Expo 2012 will be an opportunity to get together and “facilitate the joy of being an Apple user.”

Those are the words that Paul Kent, General Manager of Macworld Expo, kept stressing when I interviewed him recently. His vision of the new Macworld Expo is somewhere between Comic-Con and Macworld Expo’s of the past.

If you’re concerned that this means the end of the technical training that has always been a tent pole of Macworld Expo, you can relax. When I specifically asked Paul if the Expo would be shifting away from technical sessions to more “consumer” activities, he replied “Not as long as I’m involved in it. A core technical training ethos remains intact.” As evidence, he noted that there will still be a Mac IT event as well as full day workshops.

True enough. However, what in previous years has been the Users Conference is undergoing a major overhaul. This gets to the second point that Paul repeatedly emphasized: The speaker format changes in 2012 are not meant to replace the old content (at least not entirely). Rather they are “additive.” The are intended to provide attendees with more choices. Making a comparison to yet another popular conference, Paul claimed that Expo 2012 will be more like South by Southwest, combining technical training with performance and other entertainment.

Macworld Expo 2012 takes place from January 26-28 (with the full day workshops on January 25). Registration doesn’t open until the first week of October. However, the Expo staff have already issued a Call for Speaking Proposals. Actually, “speakers” is a misnomer at this point; “presenters” is a better term. It was the novel descriptions cited on this web page that prompted me to sit down and talk with Paul about what it all meant. What follows are excerpts from the interview:

Ted Landau: There are two major new options for speakers: Main Stage and Out-of-the-Box Events. What’s behind these names?

Paul Kent: First, let me make clear that the names are not final and may change between now and October. That said, the Main Stage idea is derived from last year’s Industry Event and Keynote presentations. There will be a single Main Stage, a 2000 seat auditorium. There will be only one session at a time, not several concurrent sessions. Main Stage sessions should have the widest possible appeal, of interest to the entire conference delegation.

The Main Stage will be for the best of the best. It is where you’ll find the most renowned journalists, consultants, technologists, and writers. It will of course include technical training — with coverage of Lion, iOS 5 and all of Apple’s latest hardware. But it will also be for creative presentations inspired by or created with Apple products — such as a film or a musical performance.

The Out-of-the-Box Events offer a completely different take on content. There will be how-to sessions — although the emphasis will be on more niche vertical-market content than on the Main Stage. But we also want to help users celebrate the Apple experience. We don’t want stuff you can see on YouTube. We are looking for unique content. Ideas could include an Apple-inspired ‘last comic standing,’ a fashion show or performances by people lesser-known than those on the Main Stage. We plan for several such events to run concurrently.

The idea is to give attendees a choice. Want a break from learning about Photoshop layers? Go hear a band perform.

TL: With the Main Stage limited to only one session at a time, does this mean there will be less content than in previous years?

PK: No. The total content depends upon what proposals come in. If we get 1000 interesting submissions, we’ll try to find a way to include them all. Also don’t forget that the Main Stage sessions will be from 20 - 40 minutes, which is shorter than User Conference sessions in years past. We also intend to blow up the concept of time and space. We may have sessions in the evening. After all, the conference hall is ours for the entire 24 hours of each day.

Speaking of evenings, there will be a two-hour RapidFire event one evening. Presenters will have 5 minutes to explain some concept or feature. It can be anything — from how to write an Excel macro to how to use an iPad to buy a car. We’ll have a prize for the best speaker at the end of the night.

TL: The Main Stage seems too big for topics that might only appeal to a couple of hundred users. Will there be any place for smaller traditional slideshow how-to presentations?

PK: Such sessions could be an Out-of-the-Box Event. We could have in-the-box out-of-the-box sessions. Again, what we have will ultimately depend on what gets submitted.

TL: What prompted you to make all of these changes?

PK: Change is good. Our traditional format is appreciated by many users — but a fixed number of users. If we want to expand that base (and we do), we need to offer something more. We want a more festival like environment — with creative and technical activities going on at same time.

TL: Were any of these changes prompted by Apple’s decision to withdraw from the Expo several years ago?

PK: Apple’s absence actually enabled us to make these changes. We had a close relationship with Apple, one that was very productive. But it limited what type of events we could offer. We are now empowered to be more creative.

TL: If you really want the widest possible audience for these events, I’m guessing you’ll need to reduce the cost. For example, I can imagine that what had been an Exhibit Hall Only pass will now get you into at least some of these new events. Is this the case?

PK: I can’t answer that yet. Wait until October 1 when all the details will be announced.

TL: Speaking of the Exhibit Hall (or show floor, as it’s often called), are you “de-emphasizing” the floor this year, in favor of all of this new content?

PK: Not at all. The show floor remains a foundation of the Expo. Our rental of floor space is already ahead of last year.

TL: In a column I wrote last year, describing my take on the Expo, I cited two main trends in the show floor: the absence of most major vendors (such as Adobe and Microsoft) and an increased emphasis on iOS products as opposed to the Mac. Will these trends be evident again this year?

PK: We don’t decide what the emphasis will be. Our show floor is open to anyone. We want everyone to come. Who finally decides to come has always been a mirror of the vibrancy of the current market. A few years ago, it was iPods. Now it’s iOS devices.

The vendors with the most new stuff, the ones in the most competition with other companies, the ones that are most interested in getting the attention of the press and consumers that attend Macworld Expo — these are the vendors who sign up.

We look forward to more Mac OS X stuff this year. We still want vendors such as Adobe and Microsoft to return. If and when it makes sense for them to do so, they will. Never say never. It is also our hope that the new speaking formats will be a stimulus to attract new vendors.

TL: What about the big names in iOS developers — especially games? I’m particularly thinking about one of my personal favorites, Angry Birds. Will Rovio and other big-name iOS developers be on the floor this year?

PK: We don’t treat games as any unique area of the floor. However, we have spoken to the folks at Rovio. We have some ideas to do some special things with them. More generally, we expect the Mobile Apps Showcase to remain a vibrant part of show floor.

TL: Any other surprises in store for this year that you can tell us about now?

PK: I can only say that the call for speakers was the first hint that a lot of things are changing for Macworld Expo. The next hint will be in the first week of October when registration opens. Pricing and packaging will be announced then. More hints and announcements will come after that. This is going to be the most energizing, most full of new stuff Expo that we have ever done.