Saturday, January 19, 2008

23 years of Macworld Expo

This week I had a chance to go to the iPod/iPhone Expo (née Macworld Expo) in San Francisco. Steve Jobs made headlines Tuesday for introducing a new portable Macintosh, but the term "Macworld Expo" seems to no longer really describe the show. With the declining role of the Mac to Apple’s bottom line has come a rise in non-Mac products; in Paris, it was always “Apple Expo”, a more generic term.

So as with last year, there was a proliferation of iPod (and now iPhone) accessories. How many different types of cases or iPod speakers do we need? The ultimate in cr***y iPod accessories was the iCanta, a $80 toilet paper holder/iPod holder to use in your bathroom.

I've been going to Macworld Expo since the first one at Brooks Hall in 1985. I worked the Silicon Beach booth a couple of years (IIRC 1985-1987) to get an exhibitor badge, and at Palomar Software exhibited at most shows (both SF and Boston) from 1987-1993. I also was a panelist for Peggy Kilburn during the conference she created until she was forced out in 1999.

At Macworld Expo SF 1998 I sat outside the expo and did preliminary interviews for my PhD thesis. That thesis during the darkest days of the Mac, and so my study tried to predict which Mac users would stay and which would switch to Windows. I nicknamed the survey “should I stay or should I go”? So a decade ago, I would not have believed that one of the books being shown at Macworld Expo today would be “Switching to Mac for Dummies”.


The show’s origins as a Mac software show was hard to find on the floor. There were a few innovative packages, like TheSkyX and Seeker, an educational astronomy packages from Software Bisque. At $150 for the combo, it’s too expensive to buy for home use, but we might buy it to donate to my daughter’s school.

Instead of new software, there were probably even more 9.0 and 10.0 releases. SPSS (the standard stats software for social scientists) was showing SPSS 16 for the Mac. At one level a rev 16 is mundane as you can get, but on the other hand, it was an incontrovertible sign that the Mac is back. In June 1996, it was the decision of SPSS to abandon the Mac that caused me to start the MacStats website to educate the Mac faithful as to other alternatives.

Although SPSS now does their own Mac development, they came back to the Mac in July 2000 after outsourcing the port to Software MacKiev. Today, the Ukraine-based firm is the world’s largest independent developer of Mac software, with 400 employees. It does both contract work and also has a line of retail products, typically ports of Broderbund PC titles like PrintShop. According to Steve in the booth, its commercial products started when WorldBook decided not to do an OS X port of its encyclopedia and MacKiev stepped up. They still do contract development (taking over much of the HP printer driver work we once did) but are a major presence on the consumer side as well.

Although I ignored the the Microsoft, Adobe, etc. booths showing the N+1 release of their decades-old software, but that was just calculation that I wouldn’t learn anything new. Of course I’ll need to get Office 2008 (under university site license) to deal with the dreaded DOCX disease. Also when it comes out, I’ll buy (if it’s reasonably priced) Photoshop Elements 6.0 since my 5-year-old copy of 2.0 doesn’t run under OS X 10.5.


Macworld (or at least my personal purchases) has always been about esoteric hardware accessories. I finally bought a Radio Shark 2 to listen to the radio at work, as well as another USB 2.0 hub to use with my forthcoming MacBook Air.

For those interested in the MB Air, I visited the Apple both and found the CD-free strategy convincing — you can boot from a remote CD(DVD) drive over a WiFi network, although Ernie Prabhakar suggested that for emergency booting I just spend $20 and install OS X on a dedicated USB pen drive. The annoying thing is that Apple will not recommend any power supply to share between the MacBook/MacBook Pro/MacBook Air. As someone who’s accumulated about 7 bricks (and a car adaptor) for the previous model (shared between 3 laptops), I find that inflexibility to be frustrating.

Another cute piece of hardware was the iRecord ($200), a dedicated appliance that will automatically convert analog video input into a format (H.264) that plays on your iPod. It even knows the resolution of your iPod screen and thus the resolution to use for transcoding.

The hardware I’m most likely to buy is the NetGear ReadyNAS Duo, a network attached storage with multiple drive bays (due in March). It sounds ideal for Time Machine backups. The little brother of the ReadyNas NV, it sounds like it will be available for under $500. And unlike the last NAS I bought (which I returned),it presents an HFS file system and thus can backup Mac file names without modification.

I’m also interested in the Western Digital MyBook Studio hard disks, not because they do a better job of commodity hardware, but because (unlike so many other firms) they bundle some decent software. The software does an automatic continuous backup which is interesting but not unique. Instead, what was attractive is how unusually versatile in how it backs up, since it will back up some data to different places or other data (like photos) to multiple places. I’m sure my wife will use the feature that automatically uploads photos to Shutterfly.

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