Thoughts on the Future of Macworld Conference & Expo

Now that Apple has pulled out of the Macworld Conference and Expo, many people are thinking about how this valuable event can remain tenable. At last week's expo, Paul Kent, the show manager, held a town hall meeting to solicit feedback and received valuable input. I have my own thoughts on what breathes life into technical conference, and why this one is so important.

Technical conferences come and go. Some are created because a few people, who have an exaggerated sense of the importance of their technical field, see it as a way to promote it while educating others.

Others, essentially monstrous trade shows, fail for one reason or another: they get too big to cover or, as in the case of Comdex, create an outrage amongst the press that kills it.

Macworld, however, fits in the middle very nicely and serves its community well. The Apple world is small, convivial, and enjoys the myriad products for Mac, iPod and iPhone on display by the vendors. User and IT tracks train Mac IT managers and users on the latest and best technologies. People like David Pogue can draw a huge crowd just by showing people how to stitch a movie together with iMovie. Business deals get made and Mac journalists are exposed to a very wide range of Apple products that can keep them engaged for months. This is the Apple watering hole, even if the big elephant doesn't come to drink.

In principle, then, Macworld should be able to continue without Apple and a Steve Jobs keynote if some things are fixed and the scope of the show is suitably broadened to make up for Apple's absence.

Macworld Boston and New York died when Apple pulled out, but that was because everyone knew that Macworld San Francisco, in Apple's backyard, would presumaby survive. That's why the last one standing bears a particular significance and should be preserved.

What to Fix

Presumably, when Apple was enduring tough times, the January slot, right after New Years, was cheap. Now, however, that problem is gone because Apple isn't so strapped for money. The date right after New Year's day is inconvenient for product cycles and the workload on Apple employees during Christmas break.

As a result, it would seem to make sense to have Macworld during a time of year when the weather is generally good for travel, in a city with good facilities and a nice environment, and when there's no conflict with WWDC. If I could make a wish, it would be in Denver in October when there are crystal clear blue skies and temperatures in the 60s or 70s (F). Austin, Texas would also work. Perhaps Phoenix or Orlando, also in October. Rotating amongst selected cities is a standard industry practice and is known to work well.

Another item to fix, in my mind, is the high cost of the educational tracks, especially as the U.S. comes out of the recession, as it inevitably will. Without that subliminal draw by Steve Jobs and new products, attendees will need an extra incentive to be away from work for a week.

Despite the cost, I suspect that a daily keynote presentation by some luminaries would ignite interest enough to pay their way. For example, one could select from James Gosling, Tim O'Reilly, David Pogue, Jon Rubinstein (now with Palm), Guy Kawasaki, Robert Iger (Disney), John Lasseter (Pixar), Eric Schmidt (Google) and so on. It wouldn't be hard to have a daily keynote that launches the technical part of the conference and gives people a reason to attend every day.

What Not to Fix

I've been to nine of the last ten Macworlds in S.F., and I firmly believe that there is just no substitute for the annual mixing of journalists, expert technical speakers (conference faculty), developers and show attendees. Projects and initiatives are launched that percolate throughout the Mac community for the remainder of the year. That chemistry and the spirit of Macworld is something too valuable to lose.

However, it's the show attendees who must find a reason to attend and foot the bill for the whole affair. They don't really care if one CEO makes a back room deal with another CEO. They want to be educated, entertained, shown cool products, and feel sense of excitement to be involved in the Apple community. That means focusing on more of what's good:

  • Branching out in scope in a Mac focused way. I don't know yet what that means, but I suspect it will be important.
  • Continuing to appeal to big vendors who want to be in the face of a smart and affluent community: Canon, Google, Hewlett Packard, Microsoft, Nikon, and so on.
  • Getting the music and video entertainment business more involved. I'd like to see Netflix demoing its support for streaming movies to Macs.

I am sure that Paul Kent and other IDG execs are working right now to create a vision for an annual event beyond 2010 that can survive and have lasting value, worth the expense for travel and conference fees. In the grand scheme of things, no matter how important the community is, if the event can't make money, it's history. If that happens, even Apple, whether it knows it or not right now, will be damaged.

As usual, the kicker will be getting everyone to work together for the good of the Apple community, especially paying customers, instead of for themselves.