Software is eating conferences – Microsoft Build and the digital transformation of conferences


May is traditionally the month where the big tech companies host their developer conferences. Google, Facebook and Microsoft all have their gatherings with Apple quickly following in June. When COVID hit, many in the tech scene wondered what would happen to conferences. The traditional format brought thousands of people together in one space to mingle and exchange ideas in close proximity. That no longer works in a COVID world.

All the big tech companies responded differently. Facebook and Google decided to wait this year out and canceled F8 and I/O respectively. Microsoft and Apple decided to go ahead and take Build and WWDC online this year.

Impressions from Microsoft’s Build

Microsoft was the first to come out of the gate last week. Their Build conference heavily leans towards developers. It’s typically held in Seattle with around 7,000 attendees, big rooms, expo floor and lots of space for the community to meet. Within the last eight weeks, this huge event was re-imagined for the virtual space. And it has been an innovative interpretation of an all-online conference: a 48-hour non-stop event with presenters from all four corners of the world. Yes, here and there minor seams were showing, but Microsoft was pushing the envelope and for a 1.0 this was very stable.

You could choose to either follow the main events in a streaming player or switch to one of the smaller sessions that were held in Microsoft Teams. Those smaller sessions had the benefit of being more interactive with polls and Q&A with the audience. Prior to the conference, attendees could compile their schedule and were able to navigate the entire conference with little effort from one event to the next. That schedule also made it easy to re-visit sessions after the show. That was especially relevant for those sessions that were held at 2am, which most people don’t want to follow live.

No question, it is different than an in-person event – you miss the applause and excitement of the audience when their particular announcement is made or meeting like-minded people in the hallway. But the format also offered an opportunity to show a more relatable side. Presenters in their own home, kids popping up in the background, pets becoming part of the conversation. I loved the excitement especially from some of the more junior program managers that were presenting out of their bedrooms. It all felt authentic and different from the highly polished on-stage performance of past conferences.

The attendance numbers were impressive: 230,000 registered conference visitors (30 times more than in previous years), 65% from outside of the US (vs. 20% in previous years) and 500,000 views for some of the sessions such as the Imagine Cup final judgment. All of that was pulled off within eight weeks. By Microsoft’s own statement they accelerated two years worth of evolution within eight weeks. It felt like a bigger leap as it’s hard to imagine online attendance becoming a first-class experience by 2022. It sure did feel like one in 2020.

The road ahead – a bigger tent is a better tent

One cannot help, but wonder what that means for conferences going forward. It feels reminiscent of Clay Christensen’s Disruptive Innovation playbook. At first innovation happens in the low-end with good enough products, serving an audience that cannot or does not want to afford the traditional premium products. Over time, innovation and technological progress improves the experience of those low-end products and outpaces customer needs. In other words, the low-end products become viable or even superior substitutes for the premium product for an increasing number of people. It has happened in many industries from communication, displays, electronics, photography, … you name it. For a while we had an overabundance of companies digitally disrupting everything from dry cleaning to juice production, not everything successful or necessary.

One of the areas that seems to have been exempt from digital disruption was the conference sector. Even big flagship tech conferences continued to be held in a fairly traditional format. Presenter screens became bigger and events were streamed online, but the main event has largely remained a physical one. That is no longer possible. And while traditional conference visitors are pointing out that a virtual conference is no substitute for meeting in person, virtual events are leveling the playing field and make it possible for whole new audiences to attend.

The barriers of participation have substantially been lowered, in terms of money (conference tickets, hotel, airfare and associated costs), time (just think about the time spent on airports, planes and taxis) and overall hassle (organize trip, time away from families, …). Interacting with fellow attendees from Nairobi, Melbourne and Karlsruhe showed how much more inclusive conferences can become when reimagined online. The Microsoft Build numbers seem to confirm that it paid off for them as well. If this was the work of eight weeks of scrambling, think about where we will be in a year, let alone five or ten.

As always with disruptive innovation, it might look like a toy for now. But if you squint you can recognize a path forward that will create a superior experience for a meaningful part of the conference ecosystem.

Into the unknown – let the experiments begin

It was interesting to see Microsoft experimenting with different formats: the newsroom with anchors, pre-recorded demos from people’s homes, live-sessions with audience interaction and Q&A. It all felt like the birth of something new and it was definitely appealing to see them push boundaries and try out new things. To get a feel, just have a look at Scott Hanselman’s keynote, which was fun, entertaining and informative – 45 minutes well spent. Taking a step back, it only feels natural for Microsoft that they seamlessly transitioned out of their 48 hours of non-stop programming into the newly launched LearnTV. LearnTV is a traditional broadcasting format where they stitch together existing live and pre-recorded content, combining previous conference presentations with Twitch sessions, Channel 9 interviews and whatever else is there. The boundaries between conference and day-to-day broadcasting are starting to blur.

While this is certainly true for the flagship tech conferences, the jury is still out there about what will happen to the major trade shows and smaller independent tech conferences. The former are indeed heavily reliant on in-person interactions which are still hard to replicate online. Given the level of investment in standing up such shows and the newly associated risks, only time will tell how that space is going to evolve.

Independent conferences have probably been hit hardest given the massive disruption in their economics. We’ve already seen O’Reilly shutting down their conference business – not just putting it on hold, but shutting it down indefinitely. Those kinds of conferences have always been a labor of love that barely broke even, if at all. In an all-virtual setting they are increasingly competing with online learning providers such as the Udemys and Masterclasses of this world.

A crisis is a terrible thing to waste – Paul Romer

The conference sector and all its adjacent ecosystems have been hit hard by COVID. While we see digital transformation being accelerated in most sectors, conferences let you watch that digital disruption in real time even more clearly – both the bad and the good. As with every crisis, this one is no exception in that it offers opportunities. Therefore it is not surprising to see A16Z, the high priests of Software eating the world, investing in this space. With Run the World, Bevy and Hopin we have an emerging category of startups that are trying to fill this gap in the world and redefine what conferences will look like in the future.

More than ever, we are living in remarkable times.

Photo by Samuel Pereira on Unsplash

The Author

Raging introvert, estimated to be 120% German. Passionate about photography. If Sheldon knocked on my door three times, I'd let him in.