So Much to See

The Ministry of Nightlife is a necessary component of the Expo experience. I'm not knocking it. But Lord, it do take its toll on body and spirit. I didn't travel some 3,000 to spend my nights in my hotel room watching "Little House On The Prarie," of course, but perhaps there's a better alternative to having to actually shake one's groove thing until midnight when one has to be in a meeting at 9 a.m. the next day.

For this day promises to be a way-hey-hey of a day, with my schedule packed with lots of the sorts of things that an Expo day tends to be packed with. I awaken after only three hours' of sleep, note the time with a start and dash into the bathroom, brushing and shaving furiously before realizing that that's a "7," not a "9," and gratefully returning to bed for a brief bit of relaxation before snapping awake at fifteen minutes before I'm supposed to be alert and in front of a major Mac product's lead programmer and not in my underwear and a San Diego Comic-Con tee shirt as I do so, and thus it's seventeen minutes later when I'm in Moscone, quite out of breath but resigned to the fact that these things happen.

Regardless of how long Expo actually lasts, I can usually rely on the second full day being the busiest. Lots of things have to happen just in general -- giving talks, doing a little TV and radio, trying to maintain a presence so that those hundreds of accidental bump-intos (the ones in which someone you never thought you'd see drops a big chocolate-frosted nugget of hot information in your lap) happen -- but two of the biggest bits of the pie-chart involve private meetings with software and hardware companies and simply making sure you've seen everything that's going on in every booth. Typically, there's one day in which I've no appointments that will take me away from Moscone, and with the calm serenity of a teenaged boy in 1967 who knows he has a draft number in the low teens, that's the day I set aside for intense (and sometimes exhausting) legwork covering the show.

Covering all of the booths is actually a subtly complicated problem. Everything's laid out in a simple grid, so technically it should be a simple matter to see everything, but I'm always amazed that the most kick-butt things are the ones that somehow got in under my radar...once again underscoring that the most important thing about coming out here is talking to people. I can count at least three uberwonderful things at the show which I probably would never have found if it hadn't been for bumping into someone who had come away from the product demo practically phosphorescent with excitement. But just as important is simply walking, walking, walking, scanning your entire field of vision with predatory eyes and not allowing the sign promoting a statistical analysis package that's targeted specifically to the bowling-alley management vector distract you from the little kiosk next to it introducing a remarkable new email client that lets you talk to dead pets.

And then there are the private little meetings. Dotted here and there through Moscone are little rooms with little more than a round table and a few chairs and maybe a lithograph of humble bits of fruit on the wall, affording little in the way of comfort but much in the way of quiet and sitting-downness. A lot of deals get struck here, but if you write about the industry (or even more interestingly, write reports that might lead your employer to invest millions of dollars of people's retirement funds in certain companies) here's where a product manager or lead programmer makes the case for their hardware or software.

It's actually pretty valuable time; as a writer, it's a chance to collapse months' worth of idle questions and potentially months' more of future phone tag into ten minutes to an hour in which you're speaking to, literally, everyone who can give you a direct and specific answer.

One meeting for instance, begins with a rundown of tweaks to their flagship product; then they show me the major rewrite of an adjunct to that major product which isn't selling well, they admit, but they're putting a lot of faith in it, because it sets up the infrastructure for (flourish) this new software which they haven't announced yet, but hopefully they can show publicly in August. It's pre-alpha, more or less a working proof-of-concept, but it shows the gist of where they want to go.

I get to ask a lot of questions. I'm wondering how this particular company is going to be affected by the importance of PDF in Mac OS X; The Right Guy To Ask gives a definitive answer. I am asked whether or not I think they're doing this right, and am glad they ask, because their software currently does that with all of the speed and elegance of a pig looking for an apple core and can say so not to someone who will parry off such a criticism, but might actually do something about it. While I'm at it I ask why the hell another piece of software doesn't do this , and receive a weary sigh in return; they backed the wrong horse, they explain, and bought the rights to a code module that was supposed to do all the work for them but proved to have so many limitations and maintenance problems that they'll be writing a new version of the app just to wrangle free of the damned thing. I ask about a project that's been rumored; it's not their department, but they give me the name and email address of the lead woman to talk to about it.

If it's a hardware company, I might get to play with a prototype fresh off the boat from their manufacturer, and there's nothing more odd than working with a familiar $900 gizmo which has absolutely no logos, product numbers, or even button and switch labels on them. You sort of feel like you're using a prop from an animated show or something. Some of this is done "under NDA" -- a signed non-disclosure agreement which says that I can use this information for background purposes but I can't quote anybody, hence the lack of specifics here; but the upshot of all of this is that obviously it's damned valuable to get the chance to speak so openly and directly with these companies, without having to work through the levels of bureaucracy.

But in between these meetings, I walk the line and look for cool stuff. Friday I have to do a Macworld Live! show and a TV show on the ZDTV cable channel talking about impressive new stuff at the show, so my eyes are particularly peeled. The highlights:

During the kickoff on Tuesday, I spoke to 500 or so people and as a way of making a larger point suggested that Apple make a sort of wristwatch Palm Pilot; something with a lot of functionality, but most importantly something with a free API so that hundreds of new wristwatch apps could flood the shareware and commercial space. Well, imagine my chagrin when I found Matsucom's booth, and their onHand watch, making its first appearance. Though not a perfect implementation of what I was picturing, it's damned close. It has all of the functionality of a Palm (though it uses a four-way "nipple"-type joystick instead of handwriting, and of course it doesn't use Palm software), serial and infrared beaming...and an open API. Eight pounds of cool in a five-pound bag. The Mac version of the software is still being written but will make its appearance in early spring.

With less flash but no less important is what's being done by fatbrain.com. Apple has always had great luck making its developer information available to the general public; you used to be able to go into any good bookstore and buy a complete set of Apple technical reference, but that's gone by the wayside lately; in public space, technical reference is represented by downloadable PDF docs, which are great in that they're free and immediate but dammit, a 500-page reference needs to be a book . Now, we've got the best of both worlds. Fatbrain (operating with the blessings and involvement of the Apple Developer Connection) is a book-on-demand operation. If you order a copy of the AppleScript Language Guide, they'll print you a copy right then and there from the very latest version of that PDF, even if it just came out that morning. The result isn't a loosely-glued stack of laser-printed pages but a book that doesn't look at all out of place among the rest of your books.

Let me tell you about one of my robotics projects. A year ago, I acquired a batch of gizmos that were once used as the locking mechanism for a Mazda four-door. Apply twelve volts to it, and a little bumper juts out a half an inch, with some force. By interfacing four of these to my Mac using the ADB/IO gadget and AppleScript, I essentially built a robotic hand that could operate a remote control, and thus operate my stereo and VCR and stuff. Fortunately, studioZee has more common sense (and electrical-engineering experience) than I do and has come out with a doo-dad called the ZephIR. In a nutshell it's a pager-sized infrared emitter and detector that allows an ADB Mac to be used as a "learning" remote. It can control anything that can be controlled via infrared, and if it doesn't know the codes you need, you can teach it. The user software that controls the ZephIR was pre-release and this a little sketchy, but for me the big attraction is the fact that it's completely AppleScriptable. Damn, the things I can do with this...many of them purely evil, of course.

And of course that's just a few of the cooler things that are currently littering my hotel room. Thank Heavens. It looks like my short list of cool new things will fill a least fifteen minutes of air time, so I won't have to sing "Strangers In The Night," which I rehearsed for emergency purposes.

Amid all this, I was pleased to bump into Scott Knaster and Chris Espinosa. I thankfully bump into Scott (author of probably the first truly important book on Mac programming, Macintosh Programming Secrets and a true Cool Frood) at least once every Expo, but this was my first time meeting Chris. Chris is one of those names that keeps popping up in Apple histories. He was one of Apple's first ten employees, working for the company from the very beginning, and as is always the case when you finally meet someone whose work you've been interested in for some time, I was pleased to discover that he wasn't a colossal prat. You know how it is. You hate it when you meet a guy and say "You know, I really loved [name of book or software which you sincerely loved]" and then he blows his nose on your shirtsleeve by way of reply. But none of that here.

Speaking of which, Steve Jobs made a sweep of the show floor. I talked with plenty of users who were thrilled to have a chance to shake the man's hand and were greeted warmly, and one person who, well, was a witness during an encounter between Jobs and a show exhibitor which was vivid enough in detail to make me think that anyone who wants to buy one of those licensed Apple wristwatches ought to do so sooner rather than later.

Finally, it's back to my hotel room, and I lie in bed for an hour loading information into my onHand watch and playing the games and, incidentally, figuring out how the hell to make this thing actually tell you what time it is. I'm eager to play with my new toy but honestly it's just an excuse to lie down. My cold is better but it still makes its selfish demands.

Tonight, the Ministry of Nightlife has posted an ambitious agenda. As with just about every Expo week, the first night is for talky networking and socializing, the second night is the Ironman Nightlife Decathlon of music and flashing lights and enormously loud music and 24-year-old people sprawled in the back of cabs muttering that they're not as old as they used to be. And tonight, the third night, tends to be a mixed bag.

I want to go to a book party where Michael Swaine will be celebrating the release of a new edition of his abso-fraggin-wonderful "Fire In The Valley," a book so good that I didn't waste time with weaseling a free copy and just bought the damned thing. My good pal Bob LeVitus is hosting a party for his new company, which is proving to be the ultimate high-tech startup in that they've got a party and t-shirts but no desire at this point to tell anyone what it is their company will be doing or producing. Smashmouth will be performing at the Beatnik party, and I've sort of been hoping for a chance to see them live without the humiliation of being one of those Gen-X people desperately hanging out with the generation who stole the title "The Kids" away from them. And then there's the Mac the Knife party, which typically marks the official close of the Ministry of Nightlife for this particular Expo week.

I meant well, I really did, but was tired enough that I got out of the shower too late for Swaine, and when I got to LeVitus' party I found it pleasant enough that I couldn't motivate myself to swap another hour of mixing and mingling with a drink in my hand for listing to enormously loud music (great music, but loud, which considering my near-invalid status might be contraindicated). And besides, I couldn't leave before getting my traditional Help Folder Memorial Photo, consisting of myself, LeVitus, and Chris Breen, the good egg who took over from me.

Chris and I made our way from that joint to the Knife party. The Knife -- invitations unattainable, don't even try to bluff your way in, I don't care who you are or who you say you're with -- presents the partygoer with a terribly catch-22. It is indeed the ceremonial close of the Ministry, but it doesn't really heat up until 11:30 or so. But if you wait until 11:30, the only place left to stand is on the heads of the dead and dying who lost consciousness hours earlier but are kept standing by the crush of the rest of the dead and dying, those who severely need immediate medical attention but who tragically will never be reached by the EMT's in time. I was born too late to attend a Who concert, but I've been to enough Knife parties that I think I've got the gist of it.

Nonetheless, it's usually worth it. But though I've been having a lot of fun here complaining about this cold, it has been taking a lot out of me and by 11:30 there's a consensus opinion from my body's various committees that they should made In Bed By Midnight part of their party platform.

Though I retain executive veto power, I prefer to reserve it for more vital matters of state ("Yes, yes; I know that girl's nothing but trouble. But for God's sake, committee members, may I call your attention to that, and that, and let's not overlook that bit there, of course"), and regardless of the constant refrain "Sinbad is coming!" I boost myself into a cab and fall asleep quite against my will.

This is the third of beloved industry columnist ANDY IHNATKO's Macworld expo reports, exclusively for Macworld.com. Don't miss part one or part two !

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