The Truth

The Tempest sits on a quiet side street in San Francisco, just a few blocks from the Moscone Center. Eric, the bartender and proprietor, resembles a cross between Wilford Brimley and Popeye. The interior consists of a single large square room. There is a pool table, a bar that runs the length of the wall opposite the entrance, and a sprinkling of small square particleboard tables and shabby chairs. A handful of bicycles hang from the high ceiling, for reasons unclear. The walls are festooned with various mass-market beer posters and memorabilia celebrating Eric’s beloved home-state Kansas Jayhawks. The high ceilings and generic dive bar atmosphere almost make it feel more like a movie set of a bar than an actual bar.

At some bars you have a drink; at The Tempest you just drink. The beer selection is decent, the prices cheap, the service prompt. Neither the small TVs hanging above the bar (sporting events, naturally) nor the music play loudly; the only real noise is the best noise for a bar: conversation. The Tempest is exactly the bar it wants to be. And on Monday 5 January 2009, the eve of the final Macworld Expo Apple keynote address, it was filled with Mac nerds from across the continent.

Because Eric is both the owner and sole employee, The Tempest is exempt from California’s law banning smoking in bars and restaurants. And so patrons smoke. For better or worse, this bestows The Tempest with a visceral timelessness. Smell is the sense most connected to memory, and The Tempest smells like a throwback to a bygone era. It is as it was. Come next January, The Tempest will remain unchanged.

Macworld Expo will not.

In 2004 IDG changed the name of the show to “Macworld Conference and Expo”, but it’ll always be just “Macworld Expo” to me, and, colloquially (and much to the chagrin of my friends at the same-named magazine, who are constantly fighting both to keep the w lowercase and to emphasize that the Expo is run by a different arm of the same parent company), we all just really call it “Macworld”.

Even at its nadir early this decade, when the show was truly only about the Mac and not an ever-expanding universe of Apple platforms (iPod and iPhone), and when the Mac platform itself seemed on unsteady ground, Macworld Expo San Francisco was still big. For the last few years, though, the show has bulked back up to its prime fighting weight — more exhibitors, bigger crowds.

The Moscone Center complex consists of three buildings: North, South, and West. West is where WWDC takes place. It’s a lovely convention and conference space, above ground, airy, flooded with sunlight. The North and South halls are older and below ground, connected by a wide subterranean passageway underneath Howard Street. There is nothing wrong with either North or South, but there’s nothing particularly right about them, either.

South is the main hall, housing Apple’s massive exhibit space (“booth” doesn’t do it justice) and most of the other major A-list exhibitors. South Hall always looks good at Macworld Expo — North Hall is where you go to judge the health of the show. In weak years, North Hall has resembled more of a flea market than a top-line technology convention. In strong years, the entrance to North Hall fills you with a Holy crap, we’re only halfway done feeling after having made your way through the South Hall. (Everyone walking the show floor starts in the South Hall.) The North Hall looked good, if not great, this year.

The key to a good Expo is the mix between exhibitors. It’s a cocktail. A healthy Expo has the right ratio of large, expensive, polished booths and those with a decidedly lower-rent production value to them. These small pedestrian booths are often just the exhibitors you want to meet — not glib salesmen or polished marketroids, but actual engineers, designers, and entrepreneurs, people who’ve put their lives into and banked their careers on the products they’re exhibiting to promote. These are the booths where you find Expo gold — products you need or want but had never heard of before. But an overabundance of these unpolished exhibits gives the overall show floor a rather ragtag appearance. There’s a symbiotic relationship at play between the large and small exhibitors, sort of like that between the Orange Julius and Macy’s at your local mall.

Apple’s massive, central exhibit space has always been the sun around which the rest of the Expo orbits. It’s hard to imagine the South Hall at Macworld Expo without it. (Perhaps the entire Expo can now move across the street to Moscone West — better to make the show look entirely different than to attempt a combover to mask the bald spot Apple is leaving behind in the South Hall.)

I walked the floor several times over several days this year, and spoke to dozens of exhibitors. Always the same two questions: How’s the show going? and So what about next year? The answers were nearly always the same: Pretty good — we didn’t know what to expect, but we’ve been busy. And: We’d like to come back again next year, but we want to see who else is going to be here first.

I don’t know if Macworld Expo is going to survive without Apple, but the overwhelming majority of exhibitors I spoke to very much want it to. But Apple’s decision raises a crisp question. What, exactly, is the point? The show was created 25 years ago, long before personal computers even shipped with networking features. Today, everyone not only uses the Internet, they carry it with them everywhere they go.1

You no longer need to be in the same place to forge a community or to gain a customer.

Apple has repeatedly asserted — including Phil Schiller, at the outset of his keynote address — that they no longer need Macworld Expo because they reach so many customers through Apple Stores. Something along the lines of an entire Macworld Expo worth of customers visit Apple Stores worldwide every single week. No doubt that’s true. But there are major differences. For one thing, at an Apple Store you meet Apple retail sales people. At the Expo, you can meet people who actually create and design Apple products.

And the difference for exhibitors other than Apple is stark. First, as IDG’s Paul Kent pointed out, 90 percent of the products exhibited at Macworld Expo this year aren’t available in Apple’s retail stores. But even for those products that are, they’re just boxes on shelves. You don’t meet customers by getting your product in the Apple Store, and there is something palpably different and important about meeting your customers and your peers in person. As the world goes ever more digital, the remaining real-world interactions become more valuable.

If the only purpose of Macworld Expo, from Apple’s perspective, was to showcase the company’s own latest products, then they’re right, they no longer have any need for it. But the rest of us do.

Macworld Expo brings together the full spectrum of people involved in this racket. Designers, engineers, marketing guys, managers, the press, and, yes, just plain users. There is nothing else like Macworld Expo, and if it fades away, there will be nothing to take its place. What everyone wishes is that Apple hadn’t done this. That we could plan on coming back next year and have it be the same. But we can’t have that. Apple did pull out. It will never be the same. What it will be, we don’t yet know.

“I have a theory that the truth is never told during the nine-to-five hours,” Hunter S. Thompson wrote. I suggest a corollary: that the truth often resists being written down or transmitted over a wire, and will only be told to your face.

  1. Mild irony: iPhones were, unsurprisingly, ubiquitous at Macworld Expo. But AT&T 3G and EDGE reception sucked balls the whole week. I don’t think Moscone South or North get good reception in the first place, but the bigger problem, I suspect, is that the cell towers providing coverage to the Moscone vicinity just don’t have the capacity to handle an entire convention filled with people who all own the same phone. ↩︎