When I first got into the technology and IT journalism racket as an editor at PCWorld magazine way back in 1992, computer conferences were king. Huge, big-tent confabs like Comdex in Las Vegas and PC Expo in New York drew tens—if not hundreds—of thousands of attendees. Flights were booked solid for days. Cab lines in Vegas snaked around hotel entrances and often forced people to trudge the astonishingly long blocks between venues along the Strip.
The editorial planning for these events was robust. We’d hold multiple full-staff meetings in the weeks ahead of these shows, assigning beats and lining up coverage responsibilities for the team of editors sent to cover keynotes and announcements. It was an era of conference gigantism. Like the dinosaurs that roamed the earth more than 68 million years ago, these industry-wide events were huge, powerful ... and extraordinarily vulnerable.
I began thinking about this when Microsoft announced that it would be holding another Build developer conference this year, returning to the Moscone Center in San Francisco from April 2-4. Build, of course, has its roots in the old Microsoft Professional Developers Conference (PDC) series, which itself launched the same year I arrived at PCWorld. No developer conference would ever approach the size and scale of a general computing event like Comdex, but those early PDCs could pack them in. The inaugural 1992 event, which launched the Win32 API and introduced first mention of Windows 95 by its code name “Chicago,” was attended by about 5,000 people. Later events would draw 8,000 or more.
There is certainly value in big-tent, destination events—see the ongoing success of giant shows such as the Computer Electronics Show (CES) or CeBIT in Germany—but the IT/computing industry in North America has seen nothing like Comdex or PC Expo since they both waned in the early 2000s. The great lizards of the past have been supplanted by smaller, more nimble mammals better designed to endure a global cold snap and adjust to changing environments. The annual Microsoft TechEd North America conference, considered a large IT/computing gathering, draws an estimated 10,000 or so attendees. Build attendance, meanwhile, is strictly gated. Last year, registration for the Build 2013 conference sold out within hours.
Or consider the Live! 360 DEV conference, which takes place in Las Vegas next month (March 10-14). I’ve been active with the Visual Studio Live! conference going back to my days as editor in chief of Visual Studio Magazine, and now that the event is part of the expanded Live! 360 conference program, I continue to consult with the team to this day. The Live! 360 organizers place an extremely high premium on fostering interaction between presenters and attendees, encouraging people to approach speakers throughout the show. Live! 360 DEV expects to draw 700-plus attendees. It’s the absolute antithesis of the Comdex approach and, frankly, it’s pretty cool.
In an era of accessible streaming media and limited travel budgets, it really doesn’t make sense to drop 100,000 people into a room and call it a conference. Smaller events promise better focus, greater interaction and, ultimately, better value to the developers and attendees traveling to the show.
By the time you read this, Build 2014 registration will have long since sold out. If you didn’t hit the Web site early on Jan. 14, you’re almost certainly out of luck. Enjoy the streaming Web video and congratulate yourself for saving several hundred dollars in frustrating air travel.
For those who did sneak in, I expect you can look forward to an outstanding event. Take advantage of the small footprint. Seek out presenters, ask smart questions and argue with your fellow attendees. There’s a lot to get out of these shows, and often the smaller events afford the biggest opportunities to learn and grow. Take advantage of it.
Michael Desmond is the Editor-in-Chief of MSDN Magazine.
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