The Once and Future Macworld Expo

Macworld Expo 2011 has closed its doors.

At one level, this year’s Expo was yet another in a long series of great shows. The Conference sessions were as strong as ever. The Exhibit floor was crowded with enthusiastic attendees. Winding my way through the several hundred booths, I discovered many intriguing new products. And the Expo retained its title as the undisputed world champion of social networking for anyone and everyone in the Apple universe.

Expo logo

Yet, at another level, this was a completely different Macworld Expo from any of its predecessors. It was definitely not your father’s Macworld Expo. It wasn’t even your older brother’s Macworld Expo. Over the course of the last few years, the Expo has evolved to such an extent that it almost qualifies as a new species. 

Here are the new realities of Macworld Expo. Some of what follows admittedly may seem downbeat, but the forecast remains optimistic:

1. Most major vendors are gone

If the last Expo you attended was 2007 or earlier, you might be shocked to see all that was missing from this year’s event.

Mainly, it was missing almost all of the “big box” vendors that have been a signature of the Expo. Adobe was not around to demo Photoshop. Microsoft had no booth to extol the virtues of Office. There was no FileMaker and no Quark. Almost all printer vendors were absent; the lone exception was HP, which was showing off its AirPrint compatible printers. Digital camera vendors such as Olympus, Nikon, and Canon? Not present.

Even most of the stalwart “medium-sized” vendors were missing in action. At previous Expos, I looked forward to checking out the latest utility software from companies such as Alsoft, Micromat, Prosoft Engineering, and Intego. All were absent. Another favorite stop were the Peachpit and O’Reilly book booths. Not to be found this year.

Of course, as was also true last year, there was no Apple and no Steve Jobs keynote — which was undoubtedly the driving force behind the exodus of these other companies.

If you looked hard enough, you could find some familiar faces on the floor. There were DriveSavers, the Omni Group, Fujitsu, OWC and Dr. Bott. But they were more the exception than the rule.

In the place of these absent friends were a collection of new mainly independent companies — most of whom were not even in existence back in 2007.

2. Mobile devices rule

The most glaring omission from this year’s Macworld Expo was not any particular vendor. Rather, it was something you would think was essential to the Expo’s success: Macintosh computers. After all, “Mac” is in the very name of Macworld.

I’m exaggerating a bit. Sure, there were Macs to be seen on the floor. However, I’d estimate that 75% or more of the booths were instead devoted to Apple’s mobile (iOS) products: the iPhone, iPod touch and iPad. There were places on the floor where you could do a 360 degree pivot and not see one Mac.

Confirming this shift, six out of the 10 products in Macworld magazine’s Best of Show winners were iOS software or mobile accessory hardware.

It’s not just Macs that were missing. Also gone were traditional iPods. Back in the early 2000’s, attendees joked (and complained) about how booths selling iPod cases were “taking over” the Expo. The situation now is very different. I don’t recall seeing even one iPod nano or iPod Classic at any booth! 

True, vendors selling mobile device cases and batteries were still out in force in 2011. In fact, these were among the biggest booths on the floor. HyperJuice (formerly HyperMac) and mophie come immediately to mind. But they were all about iOS devices, not the iPods of old.

Compared to the old iPod focus, the iOS device emphasis at this year’s Expo is good news. Why? Because it wasn’t just iOS device peripheral hardware that dominated the floor. At least as significant was the software: the apps available from the App Store. As confirmed by Macworld Expo, the Mobile Apps Showcase was “one of the most highly trafficked areas of the show floor.” And mobile apps were by no means confined to the Showcase. Numerous booths throughout the floor featured iOS apps. For me, this collection of apps represented the most varied and enjoyable part of the Expo.

As a slight aside: All of this leaves IDG with a potential dilemma. If this trend continues (as I expect it will), at what point does the name Macworld become a misnomer? Many iOS device owners do not use a Mac. Is Macworld Expo interested in attracting these people? If so, the name Macworld Expo is not ideal. For now, the Conference sessions remain predominantly about Macs. But this too may change in the years ahead. I don’t have an immediate solution to offer. There are risks as well as benefits to any name change. But it’s definitely something that IDG should be thinking about.

3. The iPad especially rules

It’s still hard for me to keep in mind that, one year ago, the iPad had not yet shipped. It had no presence on the Expo floor. What a difference a year makes. This time around, iPad hardware, especially cases, were among the most prevalent of products.

The iPad also turns out to be a boon for app developers at the Expo. The iPad’s 9.7 inch display is far better suited for demoing apps than the iPhone’s 3.5 inch screen. It would be hard to imagine a show entirely devoted to iPhones — especially given that (unless you jailbreak an iPhone) there is no way to stream the iPhone’s output to a large screen. Vendors would be relegated to waving an iPhone around in their hands, while attendees squinted. Not pretty. With the iPad, you have a screen large enough to allow for a decent demo to a small group. You might recall that the original Macintosh had only a 9 inch screen. And look how that worked out.

With iPads and iOS software, the Expo has a strong viable alternative to the Mac. A successful show can be built with these pillars as the foundation.

Another aside: In my view, the iPad is the future of Apple. When Apple eventually ships a more robust iPad that doesn’t require a Mac for syncing, the iPad will eclipse both iMacs and MacBooks as the most popular Apple product for homes and schools.

4. The Indie Mac Software Spotlight

Mac products were not entirely absent from the Expo. There was one oasis where they could be found hanging out together: The Indie Mac Software Spotlight. Located at the far diagonal end from the Expo’s entrance, this was the home to an assortment of smaller Mac companies, including such familiar names as Smile on My Mac and BusyMac.

The Indie Spotlight was the Mac alternative to the the Mobile Apps Showcase. Even within the Spotlight, however, mobile apps occasionally seeped in. For example, BusyMac’s major new product was BusyToDo, an iOS app.

I expect the Indie Spotlight to be the one place where the Mac’s presence will grow in the years ahead — largely due to the impetus of the new Mac App Store. The Mac App Store will likely spur an increase in smaller Mac programs, much like we now find in the iOS App Store. These Mac developers, in turn, will increase the population of the Indie Spotlight.

5. “Creative” Mac emphasis is gone from the floor

When comparing Macs to PCs, a distinguishing difference has been the Mac’s excellence as a creative tool. If you worked in an accounting office, you used Windows. But if you worked in a creative profession — graphics, video, music, page design — the Mac was more often the machine of choice. Attempting to capitalize on this, IDG even renamed the New York City Macworld Expo as “Macworld CreativePro Expo” back in 2003.

Walking around the Expo floor in 2011, you’d be hard pressed to find any remnant of this creative emphasis. There was a time when the show floor featured video editing software, photo editing tools, music creation programs, page layout applications, HTML editors and even word processors. None of these Mac categories were well-represented at this year’s Expo. There were exceptions, such as the perennial Topaz booth (with its collection of Photoshop plug-ins) and Boinx’s BoinxTV Home, but they were few and far between. If there was a creative presence anywhere, it tended to be for iOS devices — such as the collection of music apps summarized in this Mac Life article.

The conference sessions still retained the Expo’s creative Mac focus. For the exhibit hall, however, Macworld Expo is now much more for “consumers” than “creators.”

6. The Expo is smaller

The number of booths at the Expo was reportedly slightly up from last year and attendance was expected to be somewhat increased as well. Compared to Expos from a few years ago, however, every measure of the Expo’s size is significantly reduced. Even the location is smaller: Moscone West rather than the traditional Moscone North and/or South.

The average booth size was also smaller. This was especially so for independent and mobile apps developers. Continuing a trend begun last year, Mobile App Showcase booths could be as small as one quarter of a small circular table.

Attendance at the conference sessions also appeared down. Sessions that had been packed to standing-room-only in years past were now often only half full.

I don’t expect any of this to substantially change any time soon. Still, the Expo remained more than large enough to have pleased many of the vendors. I heard numerous vendor comments about how well sales were going and that they would definitely be returning next year. On the whole, attendees seemed quite pleased with the Expo as well. At one packed Macworld Expo Live event, it was unanimous: everyone said they planned to be back in 2012.

7. The Web is not a substitute for the Expo

One popular notion is that Expo attendance is down because vendors and their customers are increasingly satisfied with learning about, viewing, buying and selling products over the Internet. By this logic, there’s no need to go to a show anymore.

I don’t agree. There remains value in getting to discover and see new products live, up close and personal. Watching a vendor’s demo and trying out a product while being able to ask questions is an experience unmatched by what is available online. This is especially so for Apple’s App Stores, which offer almost nothing in the way of demo versions of programs. I wound up buying several apps here at the Expo that I would not have purchased without this “live” opportunity.

Speaking of purchasing iOS apps at the Expo, the App Store significantly alters how this is done. You can’t purchase apps directly from the vendor on the floor. They can’t take your money and give you a product. Instead, you must go online to the App Store and download the product. This makes it much more difficult for vendors to offer “show discounts” or other special bonuses.

The upside is that, if you have your iPhone or iPad with you, it’s incredibly easy to make these purchases on the spot (especially as free WiFi was everywhere). In a couple of cases, I took my iPad out of my backpack and purchased an app while I was still standing in front of the vendor’s booth. These spontaneous purchases are made even more tempting because of how inexpensive most apps are.

Macworld Expo is dead; Long live Macworld Expo

The sum of all of these changes adds up to a transformation of the Expo itself. The old Expo is dead, never to return. A new and different Expo has taken its place.

Happily, last year’s Expo (the first without Apple) was a big enough success to guarantee its continuation this year. Back then, my hope was that this year’s Expo would show a trend toward returning to the format and size of Expos of old. This clearly didn’t happen. And isn’t going to happen.

The question is no longer “How does Macworld Expo need to change?” It’s already changed. The question is “Can Macworld Expo adjust to these changes and remain a success in its new incarnation?” I believe it can. It has already gone a long way toward doing so.

We are at a pivotal juncture in the Expo’s evolution. Adapting a quote spoken by Mr. Smith to Neo (Mr. Anderson) in The Matrix: Macworld Expo is currently living two lives. In one of these lives, we seek for the Expo to reclaim its former glory, in size and scope, with a renewed focus on the Mac. Anything less and we abandon the Expo. In the other life, we embrace a new Expo, smaller but still thriving, redefined by its emphasis on iOS devices. One of these lives has a future, and one of them does not.

Which path will the Expo follow? It’s up to all of us: The Expo’s organizers, vendors, attendees, and media. I’ll be back next year. I hope to see you there.