Just prior to the opening of the 2011 Macworld Expo, my colleague Christopher Breen and I mused that it would be interesting to count all the iPad cases on display on the show floor.
After browsing just the first aisle and a half, my tally was 16 iPad case models, 23 iPhone cases, a handful of iPod touch cases, four iPhone-battery cases, and a few iPad cases with built-in keyboards or batteries. Keep in mind that these were just case models--most were available in a slew of colors or designs, putting the number of cases that looked different much, much higher.
At that point, I came upon the Trexta booth, which hosted hundreds of i-device coverings. When I asked a Trexta PR representative how many different iPhone cases the company sold, I was greeted with a blank stare, a shrug, and a response that amounted to, "We sell so many different models, even I can't keep track." That's when I called off the count.
This would seem to give some credence to the complaints that the 2011 show floor was overrun with iPad cases. But that lamentation is just the 2011 version of what we've been hearing every year since 2003 or 2004. First it was, "There's nothing here but iPod cases." A few years ago, it shifted to, "There's nothing here but iPhone cases."
That's not to say the iPad wasn't getting lots of attention at the show. There were iPad cases, skins, stands, chargers, batteries, wall mounts, audio streamers, screen protectors, screen cleaners, game controllers, bags, clothing, and more. And, of course, attendees were able to check out iOS apps from a few dozen different developers. Which is all the more impressive when you consider the iPad didn't even exist a year ago.
But the Mac was also well-represented this year, especially on the software side. From cloud-based Time Machine backups to home-video production, Windows virtualization to document conversion to video converters, there was a lot of interesting new software for our favorite computer platform.
There were also many developers showing off specialized products: audio interfaces and and hardware, business and medical solutions, media-streaming hardware, document-management software, e-mail newsletter apps, media-center keyboards, and even Mac-based security systems.
And, of course, we saw new Mac-focused hard drives and companies selling Mac upgrades, even if the show didn't have a dozen booths selling discounted RAM the way it did in years past. So the idea that the 2011 show was nothing but iOS apps and accessories doesn't hold much water.
The other frequent topic of conversation at the show was the continued absence of Apple. But whereas last year it was a dark cloud hanging over everything--Would vendors and attendees come back? Would the show survive?--this year it was understood that this is just The Way It's Going To Be.
And that's not necessarily a bad thing. For starters, as an attendee (or, in my case, as a member of the media), the chances of discovering something cool or unique from a smaller vendor were much higher. Visitors were able to spend more time checking out the smaller booths, rather than waiting in line, ten deep, to see a new laptop they'd be able to see a few days later at any Apple Store around the world.
On the vendor side, I talked to a good number of companies who were warming to the idea that, for them, the show actually might be better without Apple. At many of the "Apple Shows," a huge chunk of show attendees were there mainly to see the ginormous Apple booth and, if they were lucky, a Steve Jobs keynote. Which meant big crowds at the show, but those crowds were filled with people who browsed other booths because they--the booths and the people--just happened to be there. For many smaller vendors, the best hope was to snag a few stragglers from Apple's wake.
Without Apple, the show is full of people who are there specifically to see all those other booths (and to learn from the excellent conference tracks) without the mental shadow of brand-new Apple gear. Vendors told us that people at this year's show (and, to a lesser extent, last year's) tended to be more interested in learning about products, and were more likely to be potential customers, than the typical attendee when Apple was present.
In short, attendees were there to see what's out there that's not from Apple, and companies had a much better chance to stand out from the crowd when the show floor wasn't dominated by huge booths from Apple, Adobe, Microsoft, and the like.
Finally, it was encouraging that the show was actually bigger this year than last year, with a couple dozen more vendors and several thousand square feet of additional in-use floor space. And from a logistical point of view everyone I talked to appreciated the fact that the entire event was in a single building rather than having the show floor in one building, conference sessions in another, and registration in a third.
As someone who's attended every Expo, save one, since the early 1990s (the exception necessitated by the Jobs-keynote-synchronized birth of one of my children), I wasn't disappointed this year. There was a surprisingly wide range of vendors and products; attendees seemed to be having a great time; and without new Apple products to frantically cover, I got to devote more time talking with the smaller vendors that help make the Mac platform what it is. I also got to spend more time enjoying the company of people--both industry colleagues and Macworld readers--I see only once a year.
I'm looking forward to next year's Macworld show. Apple still won't be there, and the show's undoubtedly different for that absence, but for many of us, that's not all bad.