Macworld Vows to Carry On

SAN FRANCISCO — What’s Macworld without Apple?

That was the question that the long-running tech trade show’s organizers sought to answer this week, which marked the last time the event could count Apple as a participant and its chief exhibitor.

Representatives from show producer IDG Word Expo were joined by several hundred of the Macfaithful, who crowded into a hall here at the Moscone Center this week to discuss and debate the future of the event.

And IDG stressed that the Macworld expo does have a future — at least as far as next year. The company said it’s already received commitments from over 60 exhibitors, including HP, Microsoft and Intuit, to participate in next year’s Macworld, set for Jan. 4, 2010 in San Francisco.

Yet IDG is weighing how the show should change now that it’s lost the participation of its most important supporter. One of the company’s own plans is to offer free, exhibits-only admission to all attendees. Other participants at this week’s meeting — billed as an open “town hall” forum to share IDG’s plans and elicit new suggestions — proposed a change of venue, a change in focus and an change in the entire nature of the show.

Macworld is one of the longest running tech trade shows, going on 25 years following the launch of Apple’s (NASDAQ: AAPL) first Macintosh computer in 1984.

But its organizers were thrown a last minute curve ball when Apple, the show’s primary exhibitor, said that this week’s event would be its last. Apple said its decision to drop out was based on the success of its Apple stores for reaching consumers and a general cutback in its trade show participation.

At the time, Apple also announced that CEO Steve Jobs wouldn’t be delivering his traditional, highly anticipated keynote at the show. Filling in for Jobs was Apple’s marketing chief, Phil Schiller.

Apple’s moves placed a cloud above Macworld’s future prospects. All one had to do this week is look at Apple’s enormous booth and display area on the show floor — far bigger than any other exhibitor — to realize what a difference its absence will mean.

But that difference may not be entirely negative.

“There’s a new business reality at IDG,” Kent said. “We have a lot more latitude, if you know what I mean.” The implication is that the show could be free to try new approaches, now that it’s free from Apple’s predilection for controlling aspects of the show.

One attendee at this week’s meeting said it’s crucial that IDG establish a new identity for the event. “Without a guy like Steve Jobs, it’s like the Pope leaving the Vatican,” he said. “We need to define the legitimacy of Macworld post-Steve Jobs, and if not, there’s no reason to have it.”

Kent responded by saying that Macworld is already defined by “world class educational content” and as a place to discover a wide range of products, most of which aren’t available at Apple stores.

He added that the company already has ideas for how to cope.

“We’ve only had 14 days to absorb this [news], but we’re making plans,” he told the audience. “We’re getting ideas left and right.”

In addition to IDG’s own suggestion of a free, exhibits-only admission offering, one attendee at this week’s “town hall” suggested that Macworld needed to be “scrappier and more user-oriented.”

She suggested impromptu, Web 2.0-based online interactions, and a whiteboard where attendees with a particular expertise could put together a tutorial session on the fly.

“I like scrappy, and the ad hoc stuff is great,” Kent said in response.

Several attendees asked for Macworld events in more locations. The show used to take place biannually with a summer Macworld in Boston. It was also held in New York, but now only the annual San Francisco event remains. Several meeting attendees said they’ve participated in at least 10 Macworlds, with a few even claiming to have been to all of them.

On the question of geography, Kent said that company doesn’t have a reservation beyond next year. “We’ll ask you where you want it and when,” he said.

There were also calls to expand the educational component, further develop the IT track and provide more of a showcase for music, photography, video and games than the current event offers.

Probably the most unique suggestion was a Schwagfest. A fellow in a NeXT T-shirt suggested there should be a Schwag Day in which everyone bring at least one piece of schwag — like a promotional T-shirt, mug or tzotchke.

“Everyone would bring one piece of Apple schwag to trade,” he said. “No money changes hands.”

Of course, it’s not entirely clear how the idea might pay for the show’s operating costs.

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