A fan's notes: Macworld without Apple

What's a Macworld keynote without Steve Jobs?

Like most Mac fans, the news that Apple is pulling out of the big Macworld Conference & Expo in San Francisco struck me like a sucker punch. I'm not sure what's more shocking: the idea that Apple CEO Steve Jobs won't be giving the annual keynote or the fact that Apple is pulling out of all future Macworlds after 2009.

Over the past decade and a half, I've attended numerous expos and keynotes, whether in San Francisco, Boston or New York. The experience was always unique as both a Mac user and a journalist covering technology. There's truly nothing like a Steve Jobs keynote: For those of us in the audience, the drama and excitement has always been palpable -- from the time admission lines form early in the morning to the moment we're all let in, and from the time Jobs takes the stage to the moment he utters those three words: "One more thing."

The dramatic keynote is something Jobs brought to Macworld when he returned to Apple in the late 1990s. They were major media events that everyone wanted to witness or cover firsthand, attracting a rare mix of mainstream reporters, Mac writers and bloggers -- many of whom I wouldn't have met otherwise. The keynotes transformed Macworld from a trade show into a worldwide media event.

In recent years, however, Apple has become adept at creating its own media circus, without the need for an outside organizer like IDG World Expos, which produces the Macworld Conference & Expo. Apple's town hall events, with their select media invitations, now draw much the same attention once limited to the Macworld keynote. Since Apple has complete control over its events -- and can host them at a fraction of the cost of anchoring a trade show -- it's easy to see Apple's logic in backing out of Macworld after next month's show, which runs Jan. 5-9.

More than just a keynote

The pullout has been coming ever since Jobs started comparing traffic through Apple's retail stores to the number of Macworld attendees. That said, Macworld has always been much more than an Apple retail experience and something beyond just a showcase for a Jobs keynote. It has been an international event at which Mac professionals, enthusiasts and countless vendors can meet and learn from one another -- and from a select group of Mac experts on hand at the conference.

Indeed, Macworld has been an annual training event for many companies. Diverse programs and workshops have covered a range of topics, with Mac IT tracks providing some of the most comprehensive Mac-centric training outside Apple's annual Worldwide Developers Conference. It has invariably been a great training opportunity -- one that's often been overshadowed by the focus on the keynote and the myriad announcements from other vendors at the show.

The breadth of vendors at the show has been an underappreciated part of the Macworld experience. It seems every facet of the Mac and iPod/iPhone accessory universe is on the show floor, as is every manner of Mac software developer. Big vendors like Adobe, Quark and Microsoft traditionally have had the largest presence after Apple, with smaller vendors introducing everything from contraptions used to organize iPod earbud cables to vintage Macs turned into art pieces. No Apple store can match the diversity of products available at Macworld, to say nothing of the chance to quiz vendor reps about their wares.

Still, the biggest booth -- if you can really call it a booth -- has always rightfully been Apple's. Taking up more floor space than anyone else, Apple has always offered training classes, introductions to new products and plenty of room to see and handle the latest, greatest technology on hand. Its space has always been staffed with a veritable army of Apple employees. It's hard to imagine the show without Apple's booth, particularly when other major vendors like Adobe and Belkin have already said they won't participate in next month's show.

A sense of community

So, what does this mean for Apple and the Mac community?

Despite some convulsions in the blogosphere -- and some gyrations in Apple's stock price -- I don't see Apple's decision as having a negative effect on the company. Apple has been slowly backing away from Macworld as a venue for product launches. Since the arrival of the iPod, Apple has been using smaller and more targeted, invitation-only events. Coupled with its growing world presence -- thanks to the well-thought-out marketing campaign for Mac OS X and the popularity of the iPhone -- I see the rationale for focusing on those broader efforts rather than a single trade show.

But Macworld isn't all about Apple, and this is where Apple's decision could hurt. For major vendors, the transition to marketing without a trade show may come naturally. And it may even be a good cost-cutting move. But for smaller companies dependent on media attention and their own Web sites for sales, it could spell disaster. Macworld is often the only chance they have to get the word out about their offerings.

The other casualty may be the Mac community. For many hard-core Mac users, Macworld isn't just a trade show or a training event. It's a chance to network, interact with other Mac users, and see favorite authors and columnists in person -- and at times to even be inspired by new products and new ideas.

Entrance to the keynote was a coveted prize, while participation in conference sessions was perhaps a business need or personal luxury. But for many fans, just being at Macworld -- seeing all the Mac-related products and talking about Apple in both a personal and business context -- was the crux of the event. For a few days, everyone spoke the same language.

This sense of subculture has been on the decline for a while, however. As Apple has gained ground and popularity, I've had many conversations with expo attendees about how the sense of a Mac community has slipped. There's a bit of ambivalence about Apple's focus on consumer electronics and about it seeing Microsoft as an ally instead of a rival.

Is this it for Macworld?

After Apple pulled out of the summer version of Macworld on the East Coast, it took only one year before IDG World Expos canceled the event completely. Even the last Macworld New York that Apple participated in was dramatically scaled back from earlier years. If it is to avoid a similar fate, Macworld (and other shows like Apple Expo Paris) will need to radically transform themselves.

Although IDG World Expos has confirmed that Macworld 2010 will go on, it's hard to envision the show without Apple anchoring it. The show floor will likely be much smaller and without major keynote announcements, and it won't garner as much media attention. Nor will it draw as many people.

If Macworld can be refocused as a user and business training conference rather than a theatrical media production, it could yet become a valuable tool for helping to launch Apple further as a consumer company and an enterprise solution provider. However, it's hard to see such a refocused expo as the international draw we've seen over the years. A better long-term approach may be for it to devolve into a series of smaller conferences scattered across the U.S. and the world.

End of the 'Steve-note'

With the announcement that Phil Schiller will do the final Apple keynote at Macworld -- which is scheduled for Jan. 6 -- the rumor mill swarmed with new concerns about Jobs' health. I think the decision to withdraw has been building for quite some time, and it has little to do with health concerns. More likely, Apple is trying to step down the focus on Macworld in general and Jobs in particular. Either way, it's hard to imagine anyone in any industry being able to make an international audience hang on his every word the way Jobs has done for the past 10 years.

It's easy to paint the end of Apple's participation in Macworld as an earth-shattering announcement, but the truth is that both Apple and its fans will go on. The pre-expo speculation will die down, but Apple will continue to innovate and make news with product announcements throughout the year. Still, without a doubt, this was a dramatic move by Apple. But that's part and parcel with Jobs and company -- always leaving us wanting just "one more thing."

Ryan Faas is a frequent Computerworld contributor specializing in Mac and multiplatform network issues. Find more about him at RyanFaas.com.

Copyright © 2008 IDG Communications, Inc.

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