Is Macworld Dead?


Originally, this was supposed to be a “best of Macworld” article. Not much luck with that.

With Apple now shunning the conference, and even many of our most anticipated products having already launched at CES, there’s just not much ink to spill over a bunch of Mac fans milling around Moscone Center and fawning over new iPod cases. Which raises the question: Is Macworld dead?

Unless expo organizers can give vendors and attendees a compelling reason to keep the ailing Mac love fest alive, the answer is yes.

Circus without a Ringmaster

Few could deny that blame for the decline of Macworld rests squarely on Apple itself, which stopped prodding Steve Jobs onto stage in 2009 and pulled out entirely this year, leaving the show as a husk of its former self.

So ended a rich history of groundbreaking product announcements at Macworld expos, including the iMac, iTunes, iPod Shuffle, Macbook Air, and even the iPhone. These days, Macworld is a launchpad without anything to launch.

The company had its reasons. With a network of over 300 Apple stores in place, conventions suddenly looked like a lot of work for minimal return. “Every week 3.5 million people visit our retail stores,” Apple pointed out in its press release. “And like many companies, trade shows are a minor part of how Apple reaches its customers.”

The conference also put immense pressure on Apple to unveil something amazing every year, regardless of its own internal development cycles. Steve Jobs himself hinted at the pressures of Macworld in an open letter to the Apple community after nixing his 2009 appearance. “For the first time in a decade, I’m getting to spend the holiday season with my family,” Jobs wrote, “Rather than intensely preparing for a Macworld keynote.”

Now what?

So Macworld isn’t the perennial blossoming of shiny new white plastic that it once was. Will it really die off now that Apple has quit watering it and left it to rot?

That decision lies in the hands of IDG World Expo, the company that plans and runs Macworld. It has good reason to drop the axe. From its peak of over 50,000 attendees in 2008, Macworld attendance dropped to just over 30,000 in 2010. Even more damning, that was all IDG managed to lure out after sweetening the deal with free admission for the first year ever. In every year past, IDG has charged $25 for the privilege.

Just as critically for IDG, vendors have also shied away from the “new” Macworld. This year, 250 of them dropped the cash to host a booth, down from over 400 in previous years. Many of the big players, including big shots like Adobe, didn’t show at all.

The stragglers have a new refuge to flock to, as well. This year, the Consumer Electronics Association opened up the “iLounge Pavilion” at CES 2010, which roped Apple-centric products into one spot the same way Macworld does. It drew over 100 exhibitors large and small for 2010, and CEA claims it will double in size for 2011.

The death of Macworld would not be unprecedented. More recent Mac devotees might not realize that until 2005, Macworld expos were actually held in several cities, including Boston, New York, Tokyo, and Paris. As former Macworld writer Jim Dalrmyple points out, every single one dropped off the map when Apple stopped attending, leaving Apple’s “home base” conference in San Francisco the sole Macworld standing.

Rest in Peace, Macworld

When the guest of honor leaves the party, it’s only a matter of time before you’re sitting in an empty living room with a bowl full of French onion dip and nobody to dig in. However fanatical Apple fans may be, the expense and inconvenience of heading out to San Francisco seems like a lot of work to peruse accessories that will show up at the local Apple store in a few weeks and toy with apps that you can download in a matter of seconds. Although it’s possible that IDG may be able to salvage the smoldering remains of Macworld as a cultural event for true Apple devotees, it seems clear for now that Macworld’s days of relevance to the tech world at large are now well behind it.