The ever-evolving Macworld Expo

I’ve been attending Macworld Expos regularly since about 1991 or so, first as a civilian, then as a booth worker, and, for the past decade or so, as a journalist. I’ve seen the show evolve and change a lot over the years.

Before the ascendancy of the Internet as a commerce vehicle, Macworld Expo was largely a flea market; a bazaar where vendors would go to hawk their wares, where people would come to get discounts on products that they had only read about in magazines. There were grand parties and after-hours events where liquor poured freely and people rubbed shoulders, Mac glitterati and civilians alike.

At that time, Macworld Expo was very similar to other computer shows of the era. It was an event populated by hobbyists who shared a common interest around the Macintosh. It was there that the identity of Mac users as a cult or a subculture first developed.

That hasn’t been what Macworld Expo has been about for years, however. Some time ago IDG World Expo changed the name of the event to Macworld Conference & Expo, to reflect the changing reality. If all you’ve been doing to attend Macworld Expo is spending $15 on an Exhibit Hall badge, quite frankly, you haven’t been getting very much out of the show. It’s the users who attend the show’s conference tracks who have been getting their money’s worth.

As a professional development event, Macworld Expo has done phenomenally well. I’ve spoken to many, many people over the years that come away from Macworld Expo with their heads bursting at the seams with great ideas and inspiration and new knowledge to take back home with them.

Macworld Expo has also served as a springboard for countless third parties to introduce new products for the Mac, iPhone and iPod over the years. Companies with limited marketing budgets are always hungry to capitalize on an opportunity to build awareness for their products, and many use Macworld Expo—especially that Tuesday, when Apple has introduced new products at the keynote—to do it.

I have no question that such efforts will be diminished from here on out in the wake of Apple’s decision to pull out of the show after the 2009 event. And what’s ironic about that is that I have, for years, told vendors who ask not to make their announcement on that Tuesday, for fear of having their news drowned out by everyone else’s. In fact, I think in some ways that a Macworld Expo without Apple will give vendors a better opportunity to get exposure for their products. Even if it means fewer “mainstream” news outlets will be paying attention—because those news outlets only ever paid attention to Apple, not to any of the other vendors exhibiting at Macworld Expo.

Apple certainly has a point when it says that it has more ways of reaching out to consumers than ever before, and if you’ve paid attention to Steve Jobs’ keynote addresses over the years, Apple’s decision probably didn’t come as a huge shock. He’s mentioned repeatedly how many multiples of Macworld Expo attendees the Apple retail stores welcome.

But it’s a world of difference to give mall shoppers a cursory, superficial introduction to the Macintosh platform, the iPhone and the iPod, and showing them a handful of accessories and software applications, compared to the Macworld Expo experience. To that end, Macworld Expo won’t be easily replaced or duplicated by a trip to the Apple Store, no matter what Apple says.

At the risk of sounding selfish, I have to admit that I was a bit relieved when Apple on Tuesday announced that it was pulling up stakes at Macworld Expo. The show has taken years off of my life—Macworld Expo is not an easy event for a Mac news person to cover. It’s a lot of long hours compressed into a very short week. My wife, who stays home with our kids, has lamented for years about the poor physical condition I return in after the show—I usually need to stay in bed for a day or two in order to recover.

Physical and mental exhaustion aside, though, Macworld Expo has always been a great place for me to renew old friendships, make new ones, and reenergize myself as a member of the Apple community. To that end, I hope Macworld Expo doesn’t change. Because for me and thousands of other people who make the trek to San Francisco every year, that’s what the Expo is all about.

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