How freebies are ruining Google I/O

The Law of Unintended Consequences claims another victim as Google's largesse threatens to undermine the purpose of Google I/O.
Written by Ed Burnette, Contributor
All the big companies are hosting developer conferences these days. Apple does it, Microsoft does it, as do Adobe, Oracle, IBM, and many others. It was only natural that Google start one in 2008 that they called "Google I/O". Unfortunately, a well intentioned but misguided effort to get developers to like Android and other Google products is ruining it for the very people that most need to participate.

The "I/O" in Google I/O refers to a computer term, "input/output". Data comes into a computer through the keyboard, mouse, microphone, network, and other sources, and goes out through the screen, speakers, and so on. Likewise, Google I/O is supposed to be a two-way interface: Google disseminates information to their 3rd party developers, and at the same time listens to what we have to say. Each developer gets a chance to tell the company what they're doing right and what they're doing wrong. This worked great in the conference's first two years, but not so much since then.

I attended the first conference in 2008 along with 2500 other developers to learn, and it was clear Google wanted to learn from us too. Over 2 days and 70 sessions, we explored Ajax, Web APIs, Maps, Google Web Toolkit, and of course Android. Remember, at that time, Android was the upstart competitor against the juggernauts of RIM and Nokia. Apple and Google were still friendly, and Sun was tolerant, if not outright supportive, of another vindication of their "Java everywhere" strategy. The feel was informal and relaxed, with no talk of lawyers and their lawsuits to stand between coders and the code they loved.

Google I/O 2009 was arguably both the best and worst of the I/O conferences. HTML5 was the main focus, with Google pushing the envelope on what was possible inside a web browser. In an emotional moment, the better part of 4000 attendees jumped to their feet to give the Google Wave team a standing ovation for their technical achievement. Although Wave later failed, the influence of the people, code, and ideas involved in Wave continue to be felt today.

The low point of the 2009 conference (though we didn't realize it at the time), was what was later called "Google's Oprah moment". In 2004, Oprah surprised her studio audience by giving all of them a free car. Instead of a car, Google gave us all a free Android phone: a special edition model by HTC called the "Google Ion". I like to call it "the first Android phone that wasn't ugly". While underpowered by today's standards, the Ion was a trackball-wielding curvaceous beauty. It was equivalent to Apple giving WWDC attendees an iPhone 5 two months before anyone else could get one.

This was a genius move on Google's part, I thought. The PR and goodwill generated was enormous. And it did spark a great deal of interest in the Android platform. It wasn't until much later that I came to realize what a terrible mistake it was for the conference. Looking back, the first hint of trouble was plainly visible that first day: eBay.

Not every attendee needed or wanted the phone. What do you do with unwanted stuff? Sell it on eBay, of course. Auctions sprang up immediately, and since this phone was not yet available through normal channels, demand was high. It commanded a premium price - $200, $300, $400 - whatever the market would bear. It began innocently enough. After all, nobody knew about the freebies beforehand. The fact that you could make back 50% or more of your conference registration through eBay was just a happy accident. Happy, but possibly repeatable.

The vibe for next year's conference in 2010 was strange, because almost all the speculation leading up to the conference was not "what cool technology is Google introducing this time". Instead, it was, "will they give out free hardware again". Sure enough, Google gave attendees a free Droid or Nexus One. It was easily a $400 phone, or about the same as the registration fee. Now the floodgates were open.

Google I/O 2011 was the biggest conference yet in terms of freebies. Attendees got a tablet, a WiFI hotspot, a Chromebook, and depending on what talks you went to you could also get an accessory development toolkit (ADK) and more free phones from Samsung and others. I estimate that I personally received about $1000 worth of free stuff. I didn't sell any of it, because I wanted it and used it. But despite Google's repeated attempts to discourage reselling, many did it anyway.

Look at what happened to registrations: Google I/O 2009 sold out in 90 days. I/O 2010 sold out in 50 days. After the 2010 conference, attendees could be pretty much guaranteed valuable swag that would offset much of, or sometimes more than their registration fee. In 2011 the conference sold out in 50 minutes. So what did Google do? Give away even more. The result was predictable:

Google I/O 2012 sold out in about 50 seconds.

Shortly before 7am Pacific time, March 27, 2012, I was in contact with at least a dozen other people patiently waiting to get their tickets. We were all sitting on the registration page where tickets would be sold, hitting refresh every few seconds. Refresh: Tickets are not available yet. Refresh: No, still not there. Refresh: Not yet. Finally as the countdown went to zero, we refreshed one more time. Nothing happened. The seconds dragged on, and everybody was thinking, should we let it process or press refresh again? Queries started popping up on twitter and Google+: what is going on? Seconds turned into minutes. Finally some good news about 12 minutes in, a G+ post saying one person got a ticket. How did you do it, everybody wanted to know? He had 6 windows up and was pressing refresh in all of them. A collective "Doh!" could almost be heard as extra windows were opened across the internet. Somewhere in the Googleplex, already strained servers were hit with double, triple, or quadruple the traffic.

Finally, something gave way. In a new window, academic tickets now showed as sold out. A few minutes later, it said all tickets everywhere were sold out. Most of those refreshed windows never came back at all, and others reported various kinds of failure. But it was over. When the dust settled, almost nobody I knew had gotten a ticket. Google says it took 20 minutes for the tickets to sell out, but as far as I can tell, most of that was processing the backlog from requests made in the first few seconds. The only reason I got one is because I managed to get in later as a member of the press.

This year, the company I work for at my day job is sending over a dozen developers to WWDC, the Apple developer's conference. It costs over $1500 for a ticket, and you don't get any freebies. But we send people because they need to go. They need the information and the knowledge that Apple gives out much more than they need a free phone. We also wanted and needed to send people to the Google developer's conference. If nothing else, to balance out some of the Apple Kool-Aid with a little Google Juice. But we couldn't: not a single one.

The truth is that these developer conferences are about indoctrination as much as they are about information. Indoctrination and propaganda is not inherently evil. A few years ago I remember going into a Microsoft PDC feeling almost hostile towards Microsoft, and coming out with a positiive feeling about their goals and products. It was good for me, and helped open my mind and broaden my horizons. It made me more enthusiastic and energetic about what I was doing. These things have be taken in moderation, though, and balanced with competing messages. If all you hear is Apple, Apple, Apple, then it's only natural that you're going to believe Apple has all the answers. The same goes for Microsoft or anyone else. I had hoped that this year we could get some folks enthused about Google and Android instead of iPad and Windows 8. But that's not going to happen.

Even though Google doubled the price of the I/O ticket this year, it's not enough. In my opinion, the reason the conference sold out so fast, and the reason that so many developers who need to be there cannot go, is because a significant number of people just want the freebies. Even if they don't sell them for profit, they will have gotten some cool gadgets that nobody else can get, for next to nothing. I'm not saying that everyone who snagged a ticket on March 27th falls into that category. Or even that the majority does. But there's no doubt in my mind that without the promise of free goodies, the tickets would have been much easier to get for those who are truly deserving.

Without realizing it, Google's generousity is keeping the very people they need to attract (and, yes, indoctrinate) at arm's length. For the success of Android, Google+, Maps, AdSense, and all their other endeavors, they need to put an end to the freebies after this year. Go ahead and give out the tablets or whatever one more time, then rein it in. Announce your intent ahead of time, and make everyone understand. It was fun while it lasted. Now it's time to get to work.

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