Apple at Expo: What went wrong?

Tuesday’s news that Apple had announced that Steve Jobs wouldn’t be appearing at Macworld Expo and that the company would stop exhibiting at the show after 2009 came as a shock. I’m stunned that Apple has taken a 25-year-old event that has been the single best meeting place for the entire community of users and vendors of Apple-related products and treated it like a piece of garbage stuck to the bottom of its shoe. But I’m not really surprised: Apple has been leading up to this moment for a long time now.

(Before I continue, a bit of disclosure. The company that I work for, Mac Publishing, does not run Macworld Expo. The company that runs Macworld Expo is IDG World Expo, a separate company that shares the Macworld brand name with Mac Publishing and shares the same corporate parent—IDG [International Data Group]. IDG’s corporate structure splits different businesses into different companies, each with its own budgets and management teams. So while I’m the editor of Macworld, my business doesn’t actually receive any money from the operations of Macworld Expo and isn’t judged by the financial results of Macworld Expo. However, the owner of my business is the owner of their business, so we’re cousins in the same corporate family.)

The timing of the announcement stinks. It’s three weeks before the Expo keynote, and now Apple has decided to announce its plans not just for the keynote, but for the 2010 show? Why now? My guess is that the first announcement required the second. Imagine if Apple merely announced that Steve Jobs wouldn’t be appearing at Macworld Expo. Immediately the Steve-Jobs-health speculation machine would whip into action. Jobs not appearing at Macworld Expo would be used as fodder to fuel a million different pieces wondering about Apple’s CEO.

The announcement of Apple’s “final appearance” in 2009 dulls that speculation a little bit. It won’t go away—if you picked “three” in the pool to see how many comments it would take for someone in our story thread to speculate about Steve Jobs’ health, you win—but in making that second announcement, Apple has changed the story from one about Steve Jobs’ non-appearance into one about the death of Macworld Expo.

I don’t know anything about Steve Jobs’ health. And I really do hate idle speculation about the health of a human being. (Though I do believe that if he’s terminally ill the shareholders ought to be informed. Otherwise, it’s nobody’s business but his own.) Who knows the real reason for the exit of Jobs from the keynote? There are a nearly unlimited number of reasons that don’t involve the man’s medical history. Maybe there simply weren’t any earth-shattering products ready. Maybe someone at IDG offended someone at Apple. Maybe a product that was intended for release at Expo has been delayed, either for technical reasons or because today’s economy would make it a bad time to launch a new product.

Apple doesn’t perform on your schedule

Now here’s why I’m not surprised by Apple’s announcement. Let’s back up for a moment to the turn of the century. At that time, there were two Macworld Expos—one in January in San Francisco, and one in the summer on the east coast. (First Boston, then New York.) Apple pulled out of the New York show just as it was announced that it was returning to Boston. Which one of those facts came first depends on who you ask. But let me tell you this: those final few Apple keynotes at Macworld Expo New York were lame. Apple had very little in the way of new products to offer, so the high expectations that come with Apple keynotes led to major disappointment.

It was clear to me that Apple was tired of announcing products on someone else’s schedule. The elimination of the east-coast Macworld Expo reduced that expectation down to one event: Macworld Expo in San Francisco.

At the same time, Apple was toning its product-announcement muscles in other areas. The keynote address at Apple’s once-sleepy developer conference suddenly became a hot ticket. And Apple began making more and more major announcements at Apple-controlled media events, not only at the Apple campus, but at Moscone West in San Francisco, at the Yerba Buena Theater in San Francisco, and even at the California Theater in San Jose.

Those events were timed by Apple, controlled by Apple, and attended only by Apple’s invited guests—VIPs, members of the media, analysts, and Apple employees. The public couldn’t get in, and there was no intermediary like IDG World Expo to get in the way. But I think most important was the timing—Apple could announce products when it damn well wanted to, rather than being forced to adhere to a trade-show calendar that’s usually set years in advance.

Apple Stores: They’re like mini Expos!

There were more signs of Apple’s disinterest in Macworld Expo as a showcase. For years now at Apple keynotes, in its quarterly financial calls with analysts, and even in its press material, Apple has used one event as a benchmark for the number of customers to pass through the doors of its many retail stores: Macworld Expo. (In 2005's Macworld Expo Keynote Jobs applauded the Apple retail stores for hosting "20 Macworld Expos worth of visitors" per week.) The clear signal: “When our retail stores reach so many people, what’s the need for a trade show?”

And of course, the cost of exhibiting as a trade show is enormous. There’s the booth space, the construction of the booths, the army of employees who need to run booth operations during the week, the lost productivity of people who could be working if they weren’t schlepping to a trade show.

In the aftermath of the announcement, I’ve seen a few people suggest that Apple’s ditching Expo because it could get the same sort of exposure at January’s other big trade show, the Consumer Electronics Show (CES). I think that’s dead wrong. At Macworld Expo, Apple is king. It has an entire trade show built around an ecosystem it controls. At CES, it’s just another player in an enormous pond. And all the other trade-show issues—a schedule you can’t control, an intermediary running the event, and the cost of exhibiting as such an event—still would apply.

Now here’s the funny thing, something that I believed back during the foofaraw over the Boston edition of Macworld Expo, and something that I still believe: Macworld Expo as an idea would be better off without Apple.

Bear with me here—I’m not talking crazy.

Expo isn’t just a big Apple booth, you know

Macworld Expo is the premier showcase for third-party companies who develop products for Apple’s markets. And yet every year, those same companies schlep out to San Francisco to announce their next big products—and find their announcements completely washed away by whatever Steve Jobs announced on Tuesday morning. Completely washed away. Every company I’ve met in advance of Expo, I’ve implored to announce their product before Jobs gets on stage, because after that announcement everything else gets lost.

Apple’s booth at Expo is great, too, but it really is just a giant Apple Store. All the other booths at the show contain products you might never otherwise get a chance to see. The third-party community around Apple is vibrant and exciting and doesn’t get enough face time with people because Apple’s the bright, shiny object glowing at the center of Moscone’s South Hall. With Apple out of the picture, Macworld Expo might actually be a better show. Theoretically.

Dream the impossible dream

My impossible dream is that sometime in the next year, Apple will agree to appear at Macworld Expo 2010 in a dramatically reduced fashion, perhaps with a reduced booth presence and no keynote address. If that happens, perhaps Macworld Expo as we know it today can survive.

But more likely, the Expo will have to change. IDG World Expo, which has been the middleman between Apple and the people who come to the event for many years now, will finally have an opportunity to reinvent Macworld Expo free from any expectation or interference. Paul Kent and his team at Macworld Expo witnessed the death of Macworld Expo in Boston and presumably learned a whole lot from that experience. I expect them to be incredibly creative in finding a way to reinvent Macworld Expo without Apple as a participant.

The Macworld Expo conference program is great. You will never find a better assortment of Mac luminaries than on that conference program. Could the conference survive with a different trade show? Or branch out into conferences in other cities? Should future maps to Macworld Expo just include the San Francisco Apple Store, which is a short walk from the Moscone Center, as a part of the program?

But here’s the cold reality: It’s gonna be a tough sell. The departure of Apple will in all likelihood do for the San Francisco show what it did for the East Coast version: Lead to a mass exodus of other vendors until the show is basically a conference with a withered, vestigial trade-show limb. I hope it doesn’t happen, because I do think that the Mac, iPod, and iPhone markets are strong, vibrant markets that don’t require close proximity to Apple in order to shine. But even in the best economic times—and these ain’t those, friend—promoting a Macworld Expo without Apple is going to be hard.

I don’t want Macworld San Francisco 2010 to be like Macworld Boston 2005. But that’s still the most likely scenario, and it’s a crying shame. I may understand Apple’s motivation, but I can’t agree with it. Macworld Expo and its community of users and vendors deserve better.

Subscribe to the Best of Macworld Newsletter

Comments