Post-Apple, Macworld courts developers 30 years on

Apple hasn't made a product announcement at the venerable trade show since 2009. As the event turns 30 years old, it looks to its future and place among other conferences.


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Macworld/iWorld in San Francisco Richard Nieva/CNET

When the Macintosh turned 30 years old in January, celebrations for Apple's personal computer were many. The company overhauled its home page with a full bleed picture of the Mac and a commemorative video. Apple CEO Tim Cook tweeted about the anniversary. CNET ran a weeklong special report on the product's history, one of the many, many press tributes to the machine.

And in Apple's hometown of Cupertino, Calif., members of the original Mac development team came together to reflect on its creation at the Flint Center -- the same venue where Apple co-founder Steve Jobs introduced the machine three decades earlier.

But there's another anniversary associated with the Mac that's been met with less fanfare. The Macworld conference, once one of the most anticipated trade shows in the world, also turned 30 this year. The show brings Apple users together with third-party developers and exhibitors. The event, which three years ago was rebranded as Macworld/iWorld, wraps up at San Francisco's Moscone Center on Saturday.

In years past, Macworld was a must-attend for the Apple faithful, who camped out overnight to hear what Jobs might announce. The list includes some of Apple's most important products: iTunes, the Safari browser, and the iPhone.

But since Apple's last showing at the event in 2009 -- Apple dropped out and decided to host its own product rollouts -- the conference has lost much of its buzz. According to Macworld general manager Paul Kent, last year's event brought in 25,000 attendees, half the number attracted by the most-attended event, in 2007, the year Jobs introduced the iPhone.

Thirty years on -- with a crowded lineup of tech conferences, including developer-centric ones like Apps World North America -- conference organizers look to Macworld's future, insisting it's got a long history ahead of it. "We're going to be talking about Apple, and going to be talking about Macworld for a long time," Kent said. As apps lead to wearables and Internet-connected household products, he believes future shows might have more of a focus on connected devices.

Even without Apple's presence, Kent said, the mission of the show is the same as it ever was: "We answer the 'What now?' after someone walks out of the Apple store," he said, during an interview at the conference site on the second day of the show. He added that the focus on third-party innovation has always been key to the show. "Now the spotlight is on them."

Kent points to a number of companies present that he's excited about, such as Avegant, which makes virtual display goggles, and Petcube, a gadget that lets you remotely interact with your pet. He says 77 developers are attending this year.

Asked about Macworld's response to Apple's departure, Kent says little. "That's not a conversation we have," he said. "Apple isn't here anymore; we don't pretend that they are. The show is what it is. We try to make it viable and vibrant."

'There was this sense of history'

At the event last week, longtime attendees reminisced about years past. "It was the big conference," said Leander Kahney, editor and publisher of the Web site Cult of Mac. "It's been a struggle to identify what the show is about post-Apple. I want to give them a lot of credit."

In Kahney's latest book, a biography of Apple design chief Jony Ive, he describes a scene at Macworld 2003. Kahney recounts chatting with Ive at the show, then hurrying off to an appointment and leaving his laptop bag. When Kahney ran into the Apple designer by chance at a hotel bar past midnight that night, Ive was carrying his backpack.

And one year -- Kahney can't recall when exactly -- immediately after Apple introduced an iPod refresh, attendees rushed out of the venue and straight to the Apple store on Stockton Street nearby, only to have confused retail employees tell fans the music player wasn't yet available. "There was nearly a riot," Kahney recalled, sitting with me in the press room.

But most people agree the most seminal event to ever grace the Macworld stage was Jobs' unveiling of the iPhone in 2007. It was also the Macworld where Apple changed its name from Apple Computer Inc. to Apple Inc. -- a recognition that its future would be built around consumer-electronics devices.

"There was this sense of history," said Kahney. "People must have felt like [they were] listening to Napoleon giving a speech." He adds, "I'm overdoing it, but you get the point."

Kent, who started as the conference chair in 1997 and has been general manager since 2006, also remembers a different vibe that year. While rumors always swirled leading up to Macworld, the speculation about an Apple smartphone was at a fever pitch. Even the company acted differently. "The Apple staff was particularly buttoned down that year," he said. "From an insider's perspective -- even for us -- security was remarkable."

Still, while we might never get another Apple product announcement at Macworld, the company's presence might not be completely gone. Wandering around the show floor, I ran into two employees from one of Apple's retail stores. They were decked out in Apple T-shirts -- and in typical Apple fashion, declined to comment for attribution. "This is our day off," one of them said. "We've seen some pretty cool stuff here."

 

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