Friday, August 03, 2007

Free Stuff Heralds Changing Conference Scene ... Not Just More Money Either

LinuxWorld is offering free exhibit hall passes for the San Francisco show next week. They have always made exhibit passes available for free. But in the past, as with many conferences, free guests were

  • only free when pre-registered by a certain date
  • restricted from conference sessions
  • not invited to catered events

After the dot-com crash, free passes got cheaper. This year, things are even easier, with LinuxWorld providing

  • free day-of-conference passes
  • coupons for passes sent to all pre-registered attendees, with instructions to photocopy
  • open invitation to the "kick-off" shindig
  • a voucher to attend one conference session for exhibit-hall-only guests

The tech show world has been evolving: JavaOne, after some years of a no-exhibit-pass policy started selling them. The Web 2.0 conference not only invited people in for free, but invited them to a free-beer-and-food fest. It's not just that the shows are hurting for attendee numbers to prop up sponsorship and booth prices. They may be, but I haven't got data to prove it.

Rather, it's that the value proposition of the show has changed. Conference sessions used to be a critical way to keep up with the tech landscape. I remember my frustration at not being able to get into the $2000 JavaOne show in 1999: I was working on a critical app using the brand-new Java2D API and the only people who really knew what I needed to find out about this API were not available to chat except at that show.

Now, the developers themselves blog about the newest APIs, post examples, and answer comments, providing a richer kind of support than was ever possible before. So you don't need to wait in line to snag them for 30 seconds at the end of a session.

Companies large and small are freely distributing pre-release bits too. Years ahead of RTM, in some cases. The audience has gotten sophisticated, and understands the difference between a brilliant but unofficial "side project" of a developer, a CTP, a "Go Live License" ... and that their favorite features may not make it to the RC, but that's a small price to pay for having running code -- for free! -- many quarters ahead of retail launch.

Valuable beta bits from the show goodie bag are usually posted by their creators within hours of any significant announcement at a show. And the blogosphere is de facto host to a worldwide birds-of-a-feather session that dwarfs any single show.

Meanwhile, unconferences are proliferating, where developers go to jack their brains straight into the coding matrix of other geeks, bypassing silly conference stuff, going right to what's relevant, and showing something off or banging something out on their own.

So where does that leave traditional format tech conferences? Honestly, I'm not sure. I hope somewhere good, since I'm presenting at one in September.

The current vibrancy of the tech economy should guarantee that these traditional-format shows will not whither due to lack of sponsorship/exhibitor money, or employers' belt-tightening. Money isn't the currency at issue at the moment. But attention is, and the quest to craft something that combines the meaningful intimacy of the unconferences with the massive scale of the every-day-is-Christmas tech-blog world. It's a big, expensive, and maybe even lucrative opportunity.

No comments: