Apple-less Macworld Expo to Stress Products, People

Somewhere, in another universe, Macworld Expo San Francisco 2010 was held in early January. The biggest news out of the event, by a factor of something like 20,000%, was Steve Jobs’ unveiling of the iPad–a moment that got the conference front-page coverage in newspapers around the world.

Okay, back to this reality. In December 2008. Apple announced that Macworld 2009 would be the last one with an Apple keynote (by Phil Schiller) and Apple on the show floor. Many Applewatchers took the news to spell the end of the show, and IDG, Macworld’s owner, spent a year regrouping and reimagining Macworld, attempting to make the show a success without the presence of the irreplaceable company that defined it for its first quarter century.

The iPad was announced last week, on Apple’s timetable at a venue of Apple’s choosing. IDG announced last year that it was streamlining its show’s name to Macworld 2010 and moving it to dates that don’t collide with the holiday season: It’s next week, February 9th-13th at San Francisco’s Moscone Center. I spoke with General Manager Paul Kent, who says that the conference’s mission remains the same as always: “It’s about product discovery, education, and social networking.”

“All three are things we do particularly well, and they’re things we can control,” Kent told me.

With Apple’s absence, the organizers are emphasizing the educational and social aspects of Macworld, by redoubling efforts to make the conference component worthwhile. Steve Jobs may be planning to spend the show quietly at work in Cupertino, but IDG has lined up numerous Mac celebs to speak, such as director Kevin Smith, David Pogue, Guy Kawasaki, Leo Leporte, Daring Fireball’s John Gruber, and my Macworld pals, including editorial director Jason Snell. There may be no iPads on the premises at Moscone, but there will be a session about the gizmo, and Kent told me that Macworld will be “a forum for people to talk about this thing.”

When Apple pulled out, many exhibitors lost faith and/or interest in Macworld and pulled out: Kent says that IDG expects about 230 companies to be on the show floor, about 200 fewer than last year. That means that the show will fit into one hall; among the companies that will be there are Microsoft, HP, VMware, Monster Cable, and eighty developers who are exhibiting in a new area dedicated to apps.

All of which brings us back to the question that nobody can answer for sure just yet: What is Macworld’s future? It’s going to be a far smaller show, and the tech world’s eyes won’t turn to Moscone as they did when Steve Jobs (or even Phil Schiller) graced the keynote stage. Many prognostications are bleak.

As an outsider with some knowledge of IDG, my semi-informed expectation is that there will be a Macworld 2011, and the big question is whether it’ll be a pretty good (albeit downsized) show, or will feel like a Dead Show Walking. That depends largely on whether the attendees and exhibitors at the 2010 show come away feeling that their time and money were well invested.

At least everyone’s known for more than a year that it’s going to be a very different show than in past years, and expectations are so guarded-even among Macworld fans–that exceeding them shouldn’t be a pipe dream. For me, Macworld 2010 is a subway ride away. I’m attending–between Macworlds Boston and Macworlds SF I’ve attended the show off and on over all three decades of its existence–and will let you know what I think.

(Very full disclosure: I’m a former employee of IDG and am still a participant in the company’s Employee Stock Ownership Plan.)

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