What if Apple Were to Return to Conferences Like Macworld?

“Those who cannot change their minds cannot change anything.” -- George Bernard Shaw

Years ago, Apple attended many professional conferences annually such as SIGGRAPH, Educause, Supercomputing and Macworld to name a few. In time, Apple felt that participation was no longer required. However, times have changed and so has Apple. What would be the effect if Apple were to make a return?

The Wayback Machine

Once upon a time, Apple was immersed in the sciences. That was natural, based on its existence solely as a company that made a first-class UNIX operating system and some really good, integrated desktop computational hardware and graphics systems. Apple routinely attended, at various times, the American Geophysical Union annual meeting, RSNA (radiology), Educause (education), FOSE (Government IT), SIGGRAPH (advanced graphics), Supercomputing, Macworld and many more, including various biotech conferences.

Supporting science and technology is a prestigious affair, and Apple benefitted greatly in terms of technical respect in the 1998 to 2005 timeframe. Astronomers were buying Powerbooks right and left, Apple hardware was selling well into the military and enterprise, and while not the leader, some serious and substantial supercomputers and clusters were built from Apple Xserve rack mounted units.

Unfortunately, that existence as a vendor of premium computing and graphics equipment is a low volume, low revenue operation, and when Apple saw the opportunity to turn towards the consumer, big time, with iPods, iTunes and Intel processors (to gain virtualization), things changed radically. Apple consistently and forcefully used its experience in technology to grow into a consumer electronics giant, the likes of which the world has never seen.

That meant, with a national chain of retail stores, Apple could leave that hard won heritage behind. Consumers no longer cared whether their Macs had gcc installed. Rather, it was time for music and video. The tiresome, expensive and resource draining conferences could be left behind.

Those conferences had significant drawbacks.

  1. An infrastructure for an inventory of Apple demo and booth equipment had to be staffed and funded. There was storage, shipping, maintaining, replacing and order fulfillment by Apple managers planning the booths. Plus, expensive booth equipment, tables, structures, signage, chairs, carpet, etc had to be designed and purchased -- or rented.
  2. There were other expenses that accumulated. Some literature was produced, but Apple generally shied away from "dream" brochures in the name of being green. It was to its detriment. Swag/tchotchkes were mandatory. These conferences charge monstrous fees for floor space, electrical power and receptacles and Internet access. And then there was lead tracking which, it turned out, connected Apple with technical leaders who were jazzed about Apple and its allure, but often turned out not to be big spenders.
  3. Apple employees spent a lot of time away from other duties attending and supporting the booths at the conferences. Not to mention travel, lodging and food expenses.
  4. Regular Apple employees from Cupertino, in general, while not briefed on Apple's secret plans, had some glimmer of what was afoot and were often targets of the press and curious technologists. They would be pumped for secrets at those conferences. Leaks were risked.
  5. Professionals at these conferences sought the opportunity to steer Apple toward their own special technical needs. Those needs often conflicted with what Apple knew was necessary to move into the consumer market. What was supposed to be a technical collaboration turned out to be a one-way street. Apple employees had to remain aloof, and that was bad form in the professional community.

The more successful Apple was in the consumer field and with its retail stores, the more Apple realized that these conferences were expensive, time consuming and risky. It was far better for retail store employees to engage the Apple customer. While the Apple retail store employee is very well versed in Apple products, being removed from Cupertino, they pose little risk of spilling Apple secrets.

Apple's Supercomputing booth in 2004 -  inspiring the scientist

Fast Forward: 2013

In the world of high technology, nothing stays the same forever. Ideas that once seemed eminently reasonable go out of fashion, only to be resurrected in response to changing conditions.

For example, Apple is a more mature company today than it was just a few years ago. There is no longer the lurid specter of a Steve Jobs keynote at a Macworld conference where, giddy with anticipation, attendees would wait for "One More Thing." Or fish around under their seats for some secret surprise taped there. Apple, under Tim Cook, is a workaday technical giant, and its products are first class, but some of the sizzle seems gone.

Technical thought leaders no longer have to fight the PC/Mac wars with their IT managers. It's a BYOD free for all. Professors with a giant Apple Cinema display on their desks are no longer looked upon with envy and a bit of nervous derision for being both willing outcasts and offbeat visionaries.

In fact, Apple is so mainstream today that, in some circles, it's considered cool to be in the Android camp, just so one can tout a certain independence from a technical behemoth. That, in turn, has left Apple in a bit of a funk. Tim Cook is a low key kind of guy, Apple competitors are using every trick imaginable to gain traction in the tablet arena and Apple's cachet of extreme technology and coolness compared to the intellectual destitution of the PC world is dissipating. That's mostly because of the differentiation of technology on the PC desktop, and to some extent, the notebook, has changed its character.

Tablets look a lot alike these days, and while the underlying technology of Apple remains superior, it's easier for competitors to compare themselves to the simpler physical presentation of a tablet. See, for example this ad from Amazon. That's why many are calling for Apple to reinvigorate its presence of the desktop, if for no other reason, to bring back that sense of computational power and beautiful hardware. It would be all the more prominent and distinctive in the vacuum of the Post-PC era.

Another thing that Apple might consider is to cash in on the respect and excitement people have for Apple products in all areas: science, technology, enterprise, government and military. If there's one thing that Apple can do it ignite that sense of participation in community, it would be the return, in some limited fashion to these conferences.

Sit down, educate, explain, inspire the thought leaders.

Are Consumers Just Droids?

In today's voracious consumerism, many people feel that they're just fodder to be exploited for the the sake of a company's wealth plus knowledge about their private life. Every day, we read about how some company is prying into our personal information or overcharging for what should be every day, essential services, primarily because the competition has so many cutthroat technologies at its disposal. We want to respect a company for what it's delivering, and, fortunately, Apple still maintains considerable respect both in product design and protecting our privacy.

On the other hand, there is no visible punctuation of that corporate philosophy in the world of look-alike, work-alike tablets and smartphones. Apple is not seen as collaborating with the technical leaders in business and science to advance any kind of worthy endeavor. Apple takes it for granted that customers will chose the iPad and iPhone because Apple is, well, Apple. Consumerism has its price.

Corporations engage their community of customers in many ways. There are charitable donations, community functions and the support of important efforts in health, education, and research. For example, IBM just fed Watson 600,000 pages of medical research on cancer and is preparing to, in turn, ask Watson some serious, interesting questions about cancer. A supporting infrastructure of working with its most capable customers helps a company both understand them and, in turn, make a worthy contribution to society. In turn, that visible, newsworthy endeavor engenders consumer loyalty.

IBM's Watson. The physicality is awesome. (Image credit: IBM)

Attending professional conferences, engaging the community, and looking beyond the next tiresome milestone for song downloads is something that a maturing Apple may well want to return to. Think of the excitement of seeing Apple employees actually attend a Macworld and engage its customers. It would be like a homecoming.

The company that championed what people can achieve with its products has to occasionally feed the fires by showing some leadership and nursing those flames of passion and creative play in a very public way.

In a mad world of consumerism and social media gong mostly insane, I wonder if it might not be time for Apple to retake the high ground in terms of its connection to the technical community. It would have to solve the tactical problems I listed above and then judiciously reestablish its leadership in terms of what all can achieve together rather than how many billions Apple can accumulate.

Macworld/iWorld would be great place to start.