Back in pre-history when I started writing about technology, that is to say the 1980s, trade shows were the place to find out what going on. My how things have changed. Brainshare, Novell's big show, has been canned. Steve Jobs isn't showing up for Macworld, and Apple is pulling out of the show next year.
Well, they say they won't be there, but without Apple I'd be amazed if there was a Macworld for Apple not to attend.
I've seen this coming from years down the road. In 1999 and 2000, Comdex, which was the techie trade show had more than 200,000 attendees. It was a city within the city of Las Vegas. The Comdex shows were where Bill Gates introduced Windows 95, 98, 2000, and XP. It was the show where Microsoft Windows became Windows the force. And, in spring 1999, when Linus Torvalds and Bill Gates virtually faced off with each other at Comdex, it was, in many ways, Linux's coming of age. By 2004, Comdex was dead.
Some say that Comdex died because it was overshadowed by CES. I don't think so. They were always different shows, appealing to different audiences. Comdex was for techies and for the business people who made their living from tech. CES was, and is, about tech. toys. I think Comdex died because it had outlived its usefulness and the sour economy.
Only a handful of tradeshows survived for long into the 21st century. PC Expo? History, after several name changes. The Seybold trade shows? Gone for years now. Brainshare has just been declared KIA and Macworld will be DOA.
You think CES will make it? Nope. It won't. CES attendance has been declining and, it was never as high as Comdex's in its salad days anyway. I predict a crippled CES for 2010 and after that, The End.
What's doing it? Well one heck of a sour economy for starters. Given a choice between putting up an exhibit at a trade show or keeping a couple of employees, I think I'd keep the staffers myself. The return on investment is likely to be a lot better. Besides if things really go south, I could always fire more staffers, once I've spent the money on a trade show, it's gone.
If I'm just thinking about going to a trade show, well, why should I? Since I'm press, I don't pay a thing to actually get into a show, but most of you need to pay anywhere from a few hundred to a few thousand dollars to get to all a show's goodies. And, press or not, we all have to pay airfare, taxi fees, hotel bills. I've managed to do some shows for under a grand, but not many.
Of course, it used to be that I had to be at trade shows. It was, after all, where the news was. It was, for example, why Macworld was, until the other day, a must-go show for anyone who really cared about what Apple and Steve Jobs would come up with next. Now, there's little I can't pick up from the Internet.
While I won't go as far as Robert Scoble, who thinks blogs and social networking are killing trade shows, they are playing a role. After all, since I'm always Twittering - you can find me at sjvn on Twitter - or Facebooking or whatever with other people in Linux, open-source, and other technology circles how much I could really learn by traveling a thousand miles to see them in person?
The answer, by the way, is a lot. Social networking, e-mail lists, blogging are all well and gone, but they don't replace actually meeting with someone. There's a reason, after all, why it's so much easier to have fights, flame-wars, on line than it is in person. When you're someone, you can get a much better feel for who they really are and what they're really thinking.
So, I think smaller and more focused tradeshows, like Interop, SCALE (Souther Calif. Linux Expo) and, I hope, the forthcoming OpenSource World, which I have a hand in, will continue to be successful. But, the big, mega-shows? They're dinosaurs. Their day is done.