mac.column.ted: Macworld Expo remembered

Even if Macworld Expo survives, it won't be the Expo we have come to know over these years.

Ted Landau

December 2008

Some time has gone by since the announcement that Apple is pulling out of Macworld Expo, and I still can't shake the bad feelings. Officially, Macworld's Paul Kent is firm that Macworld will continue: "We look forward to many successful years of Macworld to come." And, of course, this year's Macworld Expo 2009 is still on track for January 5th.

So it's a bit premature to be writing an obituary for the Expo. Still, a consensus (myself included) has generally acknowledged that, even if Macworld Expo survives, it won't be the Expo we have come to know over these years.

For those of you who have never been to an Expo, all of this hand-wringing is probably of little concern -- and perhaps a bit hard to comprehend. Trade shows were once important. Now they are not. Things change. Time to move on. As long as a diminished or nonexistent Expo doesn't portend anything negative for the future of Apple itself, who cares?

As I try to assess the aftershocks of the Expo pull-out, I admit that Apple's future appears quite rosy, with or without Macworld Expo. From this perspective, it's hard to fault Apple for their decision. Put bluntly, the benefits Apple gets from Macworld Expo no longer justify either the money they have to spend or the constraints the Expo imposes on their schedule. It's the Expo attendees who are the big losers. But that's of apparent little concern to Apple.

At a personal level, the potential end of the Expo represents a huge loss.

I have been in an admittedly privileged position. I attended my first Macworld Expo in 1988, as a member of the media. I was writing for the now defunct MACazine. I've attended every subsequent Macworld Expo, for over twenty years now -- as a media member, a speaker or (most often) both. As such, I have come to know most of the other Mac writers who have similarly made the trek every year (or, back when there was an east coast Expo, twice a year).

The shared experiences with my compadres have truly been the best and most enjoyable part of attending each Expo. For all of us, the Expo was typically our only opportunity to get together. I may have been in a worse position than others in this regard, living in the Detroit suburbs for most of these years. But we were all pretty much in the same boat. Macworld Expo was like a family reunion. We'd gather in the Speakers' Lounge or almost anywhere -- to chat about our lives, to debate our picks for the hottest products, or just to gossip. For me, a typical table might include (but certainly not be limited to) Bob LeVitus, Chris Breen, and Dan Frakes.

Macworld Expo was similarly my once-or-twice a year opportunity for face-to-face meetings with the many vendors that I otherwise knew only via phone or email. From press briefings to chats at a booth, these meetings helped solidify relationships for the year to come. There were also the many occasions to meet the broader Mac community -- at book signings, conference sessions, parties and all the rest.

Without a Macworld Expo, all of this "social networking" is likely to vanish. Still, whatever happens, I'll have my memories. And what memories they are! As Gershwin said, "They can't take that away from me."

The highs

In the early years of the Expo (the late 80's to early 90's), the event seemed incredibly huge. So huge that no single Exhibit Hall could accommodate it. In Boston, we had to shuttle between the World Trade Center and Bayside Expo. In San Francisco, before the current Moscone Center was completed, the Expo extended from Brooks Hall to the Civic Center.

The Expo's size was easily matched by the excitement it generated. Remember, this was a time before the World Wide Web -- which meant that the Expo was most often the place where news about new products first broke. The booths that showed off these products were big and glitzy and often had spectacular give-aways. Attendees could be seen racing from booth to booth, acquiring their collection of swag, as if they were on a scavenger hunt. There was an energy in the air that was so alive you could almost touch it.

In those days, the keynote was among the least significant events at the Expo. Steve Jobs was nowhere to be found, as he had been forced from Apple back in 1985. One year, Gil Amelio's rambling exercise in boredom seemed to go on for several days. That was the worst of the keynotes. But none of them were memorable.

What were memorable, if you were lucky enough to be invited, were the evening parties (which, in some cases where I did not have an invitation, I admit to crashing). By the more modest standards of the past few Expos, these parties were greater in number and much greater in their extravagance. I recall a couple of parties that took over the entire four stories of the San Francisco Giftcenter, with huge tables of food at every turn. Microsoft had a party one year at San Francisco's Museum of Modern Art. Ingram Micro held especially spectacular parties for many years, at venues such as the Boston Aquarium or Museum of Science. Apple itself had some pretty special parties. They once held a party that filled the entire conference floor at Moscone South, dividing it into several rooms. Each room had a different band and a different spread of food (including one vegan room, presumably in case Steve showed up!). Other parties focused on big-name musical guests, rather than food. My favorite was Brian Setzer's appearance at the Fillmore in San Francisco.

Media were often near the bottom of the party invitation foodchain. That's why I especially welcomed those few parties that were held specifically for media. Claris (the company that gave us ClarisWorks, which later became AppleWorks) was the absolute best. Their receptions were invariably at top-quality restaurants where the food was incredible. Macworld magazine also held some great parties, such as those at the Rainbow Room in New York. The Expo's very own All Star Band got its start at a MacUser party.

Not all the fun took place at night. Power Computing once offered free bungee jumps in the parking lot outside the World Trade Center in Boston. MacUser magazine offered elephant rides at its Boston "R & R" tent.

Put it all together and going to Macworld Expo was a bit like taking a trip to Disney World. If you were a Mac fan, there was nowhere else on earth you would rather be.

The lows

Eventually, this golden era came to an end. With a loud thud. Windows 95 came out. Mac sales plummeted. For awhile, it began to look as if Apple might actually die altogether. Not surprisingly, these changes took their toll on the Expo. The number of exhibit booths shrank. What used to require two halls (Moscone North and South in San Francisco) could no longer even fill up one hall. Curtains were put up to hide the empty space. Among the many low points, two stand out in my memory.

The first was at a Boston Expo where Apple announced that its long promised Copeland version of Mac OS 8 was being dropped. No alternative was announced. We were stunned. No one knew for sure when -- or even if -- a next version of the operating system would be forthcoming. I recall being at a dinner that night, sitting next to an author who had just finished a book on Copeland (based on the developer previews that had been available). He was understandably more glum than the rest of us. But we were all feeling pretty down.

The second was at a San Francisco Expo that opened just days after Apple had announced record year-end losses. It was the final blow in a long string of bad news over the past year. Walking around the floor, you felt like you were attending a funeral. Many people were speculating this would be the last time we would gather here.

The prodigal son returns

In 1997, it all began to turn around for the better. Apple announced that they had purchased NeXT -- and the NeXT OS would form the basis of Apple's new operating system. As part of the package, NeXT founder Steve Jobs would be returning to Apple. At the time, most attention focused on a debate between the merits of NeXT vs. BeOS (the two operating systems that had competed to be Apple's choice). Steve's return was not considered a particularly critical part of the equation.

As we all know now, Steve's return was critical. It was almost assuredly what saved Apple from extinction. At the next Macworld Expo at Boston in 1997, Steve gave a keynote where he made his peace with Bill Gates. The live image of Bill appearing on a large screen behind Steve, in an almost Big Brother-like fashion, was a bit scary. But it all turned out okay. And Steve's Macworld keynotes soon became the highlight of each Expo.

I can easily recall some of my favorite Stevenote moments.

There was the New York Expo in 1999 where Noah Wyle (who had recently portrayed Steve Jobs in "The Pirates of Silicon Valley") walked on stage as Steve to open the keynote. It took the audience about a minute to realize what was going on. We all then broke out laughing and clapping. At the same keynote, Steve revealed the iBook and the AirPort wireless technology. Before even telling the audience about AirPort, he showed off an iBook wirelessly connected to the Internet, which he coyly demonstrated by using a magician's hoop to confirm that there were no hidden cables.

There was the San Francisco Expo in 2002 where the flat-screen iMac was introduced amidst much secrecy -- a secrecy that was ruined when a Time magazine Web site posted a cover article on the new iMac the night before the keynote. Steve was not happy. But the crowd was wowed anyway.

Finally, perhaps the crowning moment of all of Steve's keynotes, the introduction of the iPhone at the San Francisco Expo two years ago.

The present and future

Meanwhile, throughout the 2000's, the excitement at the Expo was resurging. The Exhibit Halls were filling up again. The crowds were bigger than ever. True, the demise of the Boston/New York Expo was an unpleasant bump in the road. But the future was otherwise looking glorious. Until...last week. When Apple announced its relationship with the Expo was over.

It's been a great ride through these years. Like a thrilling roller coaster ride. A ride that, after it ended, you would rush to rejoin the waiting line and joyously yell: "Wow! That was great. Let's do that again!" And, in the case of the Macworld Expo ride, we did do it again...and again. Every year, sometimes twice a year. And it was spectacular -- no matter how many times we did it.

But now the roller coaster is poised to close down...to be dismantled because times have changed. So we get in our last licks. It's time for one more ride. Next month, we'll go up that familiar steep ratcheted climb, eager with the knowing anticipation of what is to come. But the eagerness will be tinged with regret. This time, we won't want the ride to end. The minutes will fly by much too soon. And when it's over, as much fun as we had, we'll feel more than a bit sad. Because it's over for the last time. There will be no more line to rejoin and no longer will we be able to yell out "Let's do that again."

To get Ted's latest book, Take Control of Your iPhone, click the link. To send comments regarding this column directly to Ted, click here.

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