Opinion: For Apple, '08 ends with the Macworld clunker

Here's hoping Phil Schiller offers up 'one more thing' in '09

Until mid-December, the big news about the upcoming Macworld Expo and Conference was that Adobe Systems Inc. and Belkin International Inc. weren't going to exhibit at the big show.

Then came the bombshell from Apple Inc. that it wouldn't take part in the event after 2009 -- and CEO Steve Jobs wouldn't even be on hand for his highly anticipated keynote address next week. (The show runs Jan. 5-9.)

For those of you who don't know -- and if you're reading an about the Macworld Expo, you really should -- the Expo is an annual holy event for Mac users, developers and resellers. Jobs rises to the stage to give the keynote, confirming or confounding wild rumors about fantastic new Apple products; various conference tracks get the technically curious up to speed on new Mac technology; and everyone gets to flood the show floor at San Francisco's Moscone Center to get their sticky mitts all over product, product, product. It's a weird combination of a car show, revival meeting and pilgrimage.

And while IDG World Expo (a Computerworld sister company), which puts on the event, says there will still be a Macworld Expo in 2010, Apple's move raises serious doubts about prospects for 2011. Older hands on deck will remember that there used to be two Macworld Expos every year: one in San Francisco in January and one in New York in the summer (the summer show originally took place in Boston but moved venues under a cloud of controversy). Then, five years ago, Apple pulled out of the summer Expo. At the time, it cited the cost of hauling everything and everyone to the far coast as a reason. And that may have been a valid reason. After all, it was fairly redundant of the January show, and it pressured Apple to come up with something to announce on a timetable not its own.

The summer Expo Without Apple was sad. A friend who attended reported that it was mostly iPod case vendors -- and future East Coast shows were eventually canceled.

The San Francisco show may yet escape that fate. IDG could keep it going, focusing more on Mac users, with more workshops, third-party software manufacturers, and... well, I'm sure someone will have ideas. But at best it will limp along, and the best plan may well be to let user groups go local, or thrive on the Internet.

Though there's been a lot of speculation about why Apple made this decision -- with guesses ranging from Jobs' health to corporate cutbacks -- nobody outside of Apple's Cupertino, Calif., headquarters knows for sure. The company has a history of brutally ending what it sees as suddenly unnecessary -- floppy drives in the iMac, FireWire and so on -- and it's usually right. It's like the sudden breakup of a long-term relationship when it becomes obvious one partner has lost interest. Brutal, cold and quick may be the right decision, but that doesn't mean it won't hurt.

Apple has said that it prefers to move away from big, once-a-year shows for product announcements, preferring its own special events. These give more flexibility on product rollouts, offer better rumor control and remove artificial pressure from the product cycles.

Still, it was fun while it lasted.

It's also worth noting that Apple's move isn't a sure sign the bottom is dropping out of the Mac business -- which used to be tied inextricably to the adjective beleaguered and is now pushing a 10% market share.

Paul Kent, vice president of IDG World Expo and general manager for Macworld Conference and Expo, told me early this month that the 2009 show will be just as large and vibrant as those of previous years. From his standpoint, the interest of developers and software companies large and small looks fairly steady. Given the dire economic situation, Kent said that he's "pretty happy with that."

He also pointed out there will be 500 exhibitors at next week's expo, and as many as 45,000 attendees, one in nine of whom will participate in at least one technical session. In fact, Kent said, Macworld Expo is one of the largest IT conferences in the country. That, of course, was before Apple's announcement. We'll know more about the effects of its pullout after the '09 show ends. And we should have a better idea then what the future looks like for Expo '10.

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