I was standing stock-still on the Macworld 2012 Expo show floor taking in the gnarled mass of booths sprawling the massive hall. Each hawked Apple accessories to passers-by, all of us washed in dry industrial fluorescent light that makes you feel thirsty and footsore no matter how long you've had a badge around your neck.
UPDATE 02.01.12: I was incorrectly informed by John Gruber's post that the woman in the photo is a developer named Piroska Szurmai-Palotai. Ms. Szurmai-Palotai is not the woman in the photo: she is Director of Communications for NeoPlay Entertainment (and worked as a dev on their chess app). I tracked down the woman in the photo, and the woman in the photo is Zsfia Rutkai: responsible for NeoPlay Entertainment's public communications and PR, and her title is Junior Producer. She is not upset about the characterization and has invited me to visit NeoPlay in Hungary. /END UPDATE
My friend, chef Richie Nakano, stood quietly next to me. We both watched her.
We were waiting for her to change expression.
She sat on a stool in between two large monitors across the aisle from us. The pretty brunette was in one of those big corner booths that paid a few bucks for that sorta-prime real estate you know is a gamble for whoever forked over the money to sell wignuts or widgets or iPhone cases or other sundry USB landfill.
Her shoulders were hunched and her hands sat limply in her lap beneath breasts that were packaged air-tight in a tight, branded t-shirt.
She stared at the floor. Unlike her counterparts, she never smiled. Sad booth babe was sad.
The smell of plastic iPhone cases and industrial rug cleaner mingling with Moscone Center hot dog water only added to the very strange ambiance at Macworld 2012.
There and then, I saw that the Macworld Expo was at its crossroads.
After Apple broke up with Macworld in 2009, was it going to be a Made In China carnival midway of Apple's red-headed stepchildren - or was it going to fully embrace the misfit culture that made Apple more than a brand?
It was true that this year Macworld's Expo got much more serious about refocusing on the user - and that's a relief in light of all the Apple user angst of late.
But the night before felt like the polar opposite of the Expo.
It was Macworld's excellent iWorld foray into sex, altered states of mind, and music much in the same spirit that weird and geeky Apple nerds first identified with Apple products. It was highbrow-lowbrow, a bit gritty, and a little bit underground.
On one night, delighted attendees smiled and crammed into the packed, historic Warfield Theater to see Modest Mouse; the Twitter buzz was ecstatic from start to finish.
At the same night's meetup thrown by The Unofficial Apple Weblog and HP, a crowd of friendly, quirky, passionate and relaxed Macworld attendees nibbled and drank. It was here where you could see the big, big difference between an Apple event like WWDC (for pundits, press and A-list devs) and Macworld (for pundits, press, devs and Apple fans).
Replacing the arrogance and exclusionary behavior of last year's WWDC with passion, grit, a gender balance, people who miss things like Bar Camps, and you could quickly see why more than one person remarked to me that Macworld was more fun because its hair was down.
After the Expo lights were off, Macworld was free to become the sexy librarian.
And it did, a few times.
Macworld attendees danced until the wee hours to live Mac-mixed underground San Francisco cult faves such as J Boogie, and dubstep bass-dropping sexiness from Beats Antique (at right).
During business hours Macworld maintained its identity crisis from years past while providing value to Apple product lovers - but you had to look for it.
There were great workshops and excellent live podcasts that fielded questions about everything from workflow to making music and giving demos.
Attendees commiserated about how they'd spent too much money on really cool stuff at steep discounts during the expo, ranging from iPhone shotgun video holders to solar batteries. Sleek aluminumchargers reminded me of the days when Macworld Expo looked like a confectionary store centered around white-icing cakes seemingly made of stacked newly-released Minis.
Simultaneously, booth after booth of incomprehensibly overdesigned iPad stands crowded next to the usual vaporware and dumbed-down single-purpose apps built shortsightedly around a single aspect of Apple functionality.
I always notice what's missing: this year, conversations were replaced by sales. You didn't walk around a corner and get drawn into a surprise live interview at a booth with a famous Apple face like you might have in the past.
Right before we left, my friend stopped in the middle of an aisle near the main stage.
He turned and looked at me for a minute.
He said, "Isn't this where Steve Jobs yelled at you?"
Yes it was.
And Steve Jobs was never coming back to Macworld.
* "Booth babe" is a job description. Some people (none of whom are booth babes) seem to think the term indicates a gendered insult. I have no problem with booth babes and women that want to be sexy in tech - unless they don't know anything about their products or are unapproachable. The problem I have is with booth babe culture is the way men treat them, and the way men see and define booth babes. This article is impressionistic, and not review or investigative. As it happens, the woman described in the beginning of this article was one many thought was a hired model in a sea of hired models. She was, in fact, the unhappiest looking female company rep at Macworld. After that, how you view booth babes is up to you.
Top photo of Beats Antique by Joe Pezzillo, @ejoep; second photo by Daniel Lin under Creative Commons 2.0 License.