Notes from the tech conference underground

The extended spring tech conference season is beginning to wind down. I have done my share of time watching panels, keynotes and pitches, and hanging out in hallways and lobbys looking for fresh material, seeking out the strongest signals that portend what’s in store for the future.

The extended spring tech conference season is beginning to wind down. I have done my share of time watching panels, keynotes and pitches, and hanging out in hallways and lobbys looking for fresh material, seeking out the strongest signals that portend what’s in store for the future.

Based on absorbing some of the material from several events—such as Demo, Future in Review, Gartner Symposium, JavaOne, D, Singularity, On Hollywood, Under the Radar, Burton Group’s Catalyst, Supernova, VloggerCon, BloggerCon IV, Gnomedex—I have a few observations (see also Richard MacManus’ wrap of his visit to Silicon Valley from New Zealand for the summer conference fest).

First , the critical factors for any conferences are who and what. Who is attending, speaking, schmoozing and

what is the main subject matter. Some conferences, like D, are upscale in every way—the cost (other than press), venue, food and clientele. Host cred is also paramount. D hosts Walt Mossberg and Kara Swisher were mostly able to pull off what could have been tedious and bland conversations with well known tech, media and political moguls (such Al Gore, Terry Semel, Bill Gates, Bob Iger, Howard Stringer, Gavin Newsom, Sky Dayton, Larry Lessig, John Thompson, Vinod Khosla, Steve Burke, Antonio Perez) by asking some hard questions with persistence, not quite like a dog with a chew toy, but in that Mike Wallace vein.

Future in Review, hosted by Mark Anderson, covered a broad spectrum of topics at a high level. I would characterize the presentations--with the likes of  Sol Trujillo, CEO of Telstra;  Paul Jacobs, CEO of QUALCOMM;  Dell Chairman Michael Dell; John Thompson, CEO of Symantec; Azim Premji, Chairman of Wipro; and  Bob Hormats, Vice Chairman, Goldman Sachs International--as mostly sober and genial. Other presenters covered topics, such nanotech, supercomputing, China, Avian flu, space travel, healthcare and alternative energy.

Supernova had some interesting workshops (pictured right), open
discussions on topics such as virtual worlds, Web 2.0 in the enterprise and microformats. The main event consisted of speechs, interviews (Craig Newmark and Jonathan Schwartz, for example) and panels with representatives from key players invested in various areas of the Internet.

This more traditional part of the Supernova, and other conferences, suffered from too many event sponsor spiels, which seemed out of place. One of the downsides of most conferences, is that to make money the paying sponsors get speaking slots, which can lead to good and appropriate content but too often isn't. As a result, attendees spend time in the hallways networking than listening to corporate pitches, which is the generally accepted and expected practice.

Some of the conferences were 98 percent about products emerging from the Web 2.0 primordial soup. After attending Demo, the Under the Radar digital media event and On Hollywood you get the sense that every new product or service is fewer than six degrees away from other products and a perhaps few more degrees distant from adjacent categories. And, every product has to have some aspect of social networking baked in, hoping to catch some of the MySpace vibe.

These events often have a pay to play component--if you are selected to demo your product, you pay a fee--but it doesn't necessarily detract  from the quality of  the products demoed. You get an idea of overall product trends, with the knowledge that most of the products shown won't be around next year. It's a more normal bubble of product innovation, rather than of delusional dream bubble of IPOs and houses in London, Hawaii, San Francisco and New York.

VloggerCon, BloggerCon IV and Gnomedex differed from the other conferences mostly in style and substance. The so-called unconferences are forums for discussion, rather than stand and deliver lectures or polite panels in which you would be lucky to learn something new. Many of the discussion leaders--typically so-called A-list bloggers--are the same characters from event to event. Sponsors contribute fund the events, but they are definitely in the background.

At these conferences you get the feeling you are part of an underground movement, revolutionaries plotting

to overthrow the establishment, or at least reshape the balance of power. The average age of participants skew younger than other conferences. The overarching theme is user production, users in charge, taking back the Net (or at least keeping it open and unfettered), mashing up, tapping into the feed universe, social media, multimedia, virtual worlds, owning your Web data, DIY and a "we are gaining momentum and having more impact" on everything from politics (Sen. John Edwards and Chris Pirillo at Gnomedex at right) to popular culture attitude.

It reminds me of the 1960s, when idealism, mind drugs, new music, civil rights, and the anti-Vietnam war sentiment fueled a cultural revolution. In today's context, the Web is the mind drug, iTunes (despite its DRM) is emblematic of the new music, Iraq the unpopular war, cyberspace a new civil rights battleground and idealism is once again fueled by a movement, this time led by millions of bloggers, podcasters and vloggers reaching hundreds, thousands and millions of people.

The 1960s melted away, one war ended, another started, drug abuse exploded, civil rights struggles continued, and the vast majority of young, idealistic 'revolutionaries' impacted by the movement drifted into the mainstream, with mortgages, jobs and families. Forty years from now, the idealism and liberating aspect of the Net germinating now will hopefully have altered the patterns of repetition that seem to mark the existence of our species on this planet, but don't count on it...


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