Macworld|iWorld 2014 is over: Was it worth attending?

A look back at Macworld|iWorld 2014: Mac IT, hot gear, hidden gems, social events and more

Macworld|iWorld 2014 is fast receding into the rear view mirror. Before it gets too distant I thought I'd gather my thoughts and look back on this year's event. Thirty years on, is Macworld|iWorld an event still worth attending?

I talked with a few people last week who complained bitterly about the small show floor. Look, folks, if that's all you're coming for, you're wasting your time. Macworld Expo, as the show was called in another life, was once a veritable Turkish bazaar of vendors hawking goods, offering show specials that enabled Mac users looking for bargains to walk away with bags stuffed with goodies, meeting hundreds of vendors along the way and getting exposure to dozens upon dozens of new products they'd never seen before.

Those days are long behind us. The people pining for it may as well be waiting for the return of the Egyptian pharaohs. It simply isn't going to happen. The Internet has made it easier to find information about products and to get good deals on them.

That's not a good reason to come to Macworld|iWorld. However, good reasons abound. To that end, the event's conferences and workshops have taken more of a central role. That isn't for everyone. It requires a larger commitment: it's a bigger up front cost and a bigger risk if you're stuck with a dud speaker. Fortunately that doesn't happen too much at Macworld|iWorld.

Whether you're a creative professional, a hobbyist or an IT pro, chances are there was something on the conference track that would have appealed to you: developing photo and video workflows from mobile to desktop, for example, or how best to use iCloud Keychain; best production techniques for Logic Pro X; power user Apple Mail tips. There were also meet up opportunities for like-minded showgoers, whether your interest was music, cryptocurrency, education or business consulting.

MacIT: The show's new center

Far and away the most robust track for this year's Macworld|iWorld is MacIT, which gathers information technology specialists from around the world to talk and to learn about how best to leverage Apple technology in the enterprise. When I last went to Macworld three years ago, MacIT was just picking up speed. Now it's full-bore and central to the Macworld|iWorld experience – a three-day event that incorporates its own conference track entirely distinct from the other Macworld conferences.

Despite its name, MacIT isn't just about Macs – there were lots of sessions focusing on using iOS devices in enterprise and education, as well. MacIT ran Wednesday through Friday at this year's event, with practical sessions on managing Apple IDs, using technology like Apple's Device Enrollment and Volume Purchase Programs, using iOS 7 in education, Macs and medicine and much more. If you're responsible for taking care of Macs or iOS devices in business, you have a strong reason to participate when Macworld|iWorld comes back around next year.

Neat gear on display

The exhibit hall floor is different than it was years ago, but that doesn't mean it wasn't worth looking over. Vendors large and small graced the floor. iPhone case vendors deserve their props. Among the standouts were FLIR Systems, with their FLIR ONE case. The case adds night vision to your iPhone 5/5s via a thermal camera.

Moshi's new Sensecover protects your iPhone's screen while showing you time and date through a window; a conductive strip on the cover lets you unlock the phone and talk without having to open it.

The IN1Case is a new TSA-compliant iPhone case that's equipped like a Swiss Army Knife, complete with scissors, screwdrivers, pens and more.

iPhone case vendors only made up a portion of the show floor – there were lots of other cool pieces of gear on hand.

Drobo showed off its new third-generation network storage device, a four-bay system that enables you to store data on your network including Time Machine backups. Drobo claims the new system is up to three times faster than before, has enhancements for Time Machine, and will be available for $349 in late April. You can order it in a DIY configuration with no drives installed; a fully-populated 16 terabyte Drobo will cost $1,449.

There's so much emphasis on standing while working these days – standing desks are all the rage – and companies like Ergotron and Ergotech Group showed off their systems for getting your desktop or laptop Mac off the desk so you can stand up, and Kickstarter-funded iSkelter showed off their new SlatePro Personal TechDesk, made of compressed bamboo, complete with cutouts for iPad, iPhone and vent holes, available in standing and sitting versions.

Appalooza: A treasure trove of hidden gems

Some vendors opted to exhibit in a turnkey kiosk space on the show floor called Appalooza. A bit like speed-dating for expogoers, this area condensed more than four dozen exhibitors into a single section of the show floor. Despite the number of vendors, it was well-spaced, with room for attendees to sit down and relax as they made your way among the booths.

It was there that I found CityHour, an iOS app that leverages LinkedIn's prodigious database of resumes to help you connect with like-minded business people. Are you a graphic designer looking for freelance work or an iOS developer looking for their next contract? Find out if anyone within a 50 mile radius is interested in meeting with you in the next two hours. Make the most of an overnight layover in a new city or a free afternoon out of the office.

PhatWare showed off WritePro, a $9.99 word processor/note taking app with handwriting recognition and sync support for Box, Dropbox, OneDrive, iCloud, and more. WritePro documents are standard HTML files, so you can view them just about anywhere you have access to a web browser.

EverWeb hopes to fill the gap left by Apple's dear departed iWeb app – a web site creator for people who don't want to bother with code. Unlike template-based web page creation tools, EverWeb employs a drag-and-drop system that's reminiscent of Softpress's Freeway app. What's more, EverWeb sells a hosted service that makes it easier to publish your site.

BusyMac created a lot of buzz on the show floor when it introduced BusyContacts, an OS X app designed as a replacement for Apple's own Contacts app. It syncs with the existing Contacts database on iOS and OS X but features customizable views, tags, smart filters, social network integration, and more – including integration with BusyCal. You'll see it this summer, initially as a public beta.

Social events too

In previous years, the event's organizers have held a "Blast" party that has variously featured bands or DJs. This year the Blast party was sadly missing from Macworld|iWorld's itinerary. I don't know if it'll ever return, but that doesn't mean nothing happened after dark.

There were still parties: social networking app TAPPD had a launch party; Cult of Mac, DiskAid and MacUpdate teamed together for their own CultCast Live party a few blocks away; SCOTTEVEST sponsored a happy hour at a local tapas bar; and The Mac Observer, BackBeat Media and their sponsors held Cirque Du Mac, a blowout party with live music courtesy of the Macworld All-Star Band, now in its 11th year.

What's more, on any given evening after the show, you could find Macworld attendees, exhibitors and speakers rubbing elbows in the lounges of local hotels and at bars and restaurants near the Moscone Center. It's obviously not a mandatory part of the event, but it's good fun and a great opportunity to talk with people away from the show – assuming the music isn't too loud to hear them.

Bottom line: Is it worth coming to Macworld|iWorld?

Macworld Expo got started 30 years ago, when the Macintosh first launched. The show has gone through many iterations since then, and I don't pretend that its current incarnation makes everyone happy. It doesn't, and it won't. Long time attendees may crave the bombast and scale of past shows, but I don't see that happening again.

Apple is now the most profitable company in the world, but it's become so by changing itself from a specialty computer company to a consumer electronics maker. You'd assume with all those new Apple customers, Macworld|iWorld's promoters must be doing something wrong if the show is shrinking instead of growing.

But as Apple's customer base has grown, Apple's customer has changed. Most people who use Apple products are content to just use them – not to be part of a community of users. That doesn't mean a community doesn't exist. It just means that the community has gotten more specialized.

Macworld|iWorld remains a fixture of the community. The crowds may be smaller, the announcements more subdued, but at its core, Macworld|iWorld is about and for the people who make the trip – the attendees, the exhibitors, and the speakers.

Whether Macworld|iWorld is worth it to you to attend is an entirely different question. As much as I love to go, I don't expect many people can personally justify the expense of the trip, especially those who live outside of the Bay Area where the event is held. I think there's a strong case to make if you're in IT and support Apple products, however.

For me, every time I go to Macworld|iWorld, I renew friendships and acquaintances, see new things I didn't know about and make new friends and colleagues. That's something that I can't replace or duplicate anywhere else. And that's why I hope Macworld|iWorld keeps happening for another 30 years.

Peter Cohen