Tech conferences are going virtual, and it feels like Netflix content on demand

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The changing face of major tech conferences came in the form of a live-streamed speech on my computer screen Tuesday morning.

In it, Microsoft Corp. MSFT, -0.79% Chief Executive Satya Nadella laid out his vision for “empowering every developer.” His 20-minute speech was followed by a series of live and prerecorded tutorials on coding, cloud computing, and other geeky topics from TV-like studios on the Microsoft campus, buttressed by slick graphics and pretaped videos, all day and night. And all of it was free, with easy access to 509 sessions and documentation. The two-day conference had the look and feel of content-on-demand a la Netflix Inc. NFLX, -2.89%

A week earlier, Nvidia Corp. NVDA, -1.45% Chief Executive Jensen Huang delivered a two-hour keynote at GTC Digital in nine 12-minute slices, based on topics ranging from autonomous vehicles to artificial intelligence. The presentation, taped in Huang’s kitchen, attracted 4 million views. This year, 57,000 developers signed up to attend; last year, 10,000 physically attended the conference in San Jose, Calif.

Such is the new world of tech conferences in the age of COVID-19. They’ve gone all-digital, like Build and GTC Digital, and may never be the same. Absent a vaccine, the days of thousands of people herded into hotel ballrooms and convention centers like cattle, sharing cabs and eating in cramped quarters, are gone.

Far from crippling the tech industry, however, virtual shows could lead to democratization of what had once been an exclusive, pricey privilege for tech movers and shakers. In the new climate, consumers have free access to valuable technical content whenever they wish to view it.

“This will definitely change the approach of tech conferences. Virtually, you can identify attendees online and track what they see,” Paddy Cosgrave, chief executive of the company that runs the Web Summit and Collision conferences, told MarketWatch in a phone interview Monday. The show, originally planned June 22-25 in Toronto, will go on as an all-digital event those days.

“If the show is pure content and not networking, like an F8 or Build, you can upsell to them virtually,” he said. “F8, AWS, and Build are like infomercials, selling to an existing customer base.”

“Without question it was a better experience: free, no red-eye flight, no hotel room charges, and better access to the Microsoft team,” Laron Walker, CEO of Mantisedu Inc., an Atlanta-based education hardware partner of Microsoft, told MarketWatch in a phone interview. “Last year, I paid several thousand dollars to attend, and if I was late for a session, I couldn’t rewind it. This year, I could.”

Walker, 41, said he was able to view sessions at any time, pause them to take notes, and then pass them on to co-workers. He was also able to connect with Build speakers via LinkedIn and email because he had more information about them via their presentations. “This made me look at tech conferences in a whole new light,” he said.

Developers conferences are as much an annual ritual in the tech industry as Apple Inc. AAPL, -0.34% product launches and gargantuan shows like CES and Mobile World Congress. All told, they set the narrative for developers and, eventually, consumers over the next year or two.

May is usually the epicenter of such gatherings. Before COVID-19, executives, analysts, business partners, and the press had scheduled their travel schedules to attend Microsoft’s Build (May 19-21, in Seattle), Google parent Alphabet Inc.’s GOOGL, -0.17% GOOG, -0.15% I/O summit (May 12-14, Mountain View, Calif.), and Facebook Inc.’s FB, +1.17% F8 (May 5-6, in San Jose).

Two of those shows were dropped while a third will be vastly restructured. For example:

Apple: “We are delivering WWDC 2020 this June in an innovative way to millions of developers around the world, bringing the entire developer community together with a new experience,” Phil Schiller, Apple’s senior vice president of Worldwide Marketing, said in a statement May 5. “We look forward to sharing more details about WWDC20 with everyone as we get closer to this exciting event” on June 22. The event is free for all developers.

Facebook: The company, which has vowed not to host events of more than 50 people until June 2021, is “still working through what F8 and more broadly what FB’s events/conference approach will be beyond June 2021,” a company spokesperson told MarketWatch.

Google: Google canceled I/O altogether and declined to comment on the show next year. The show will go on, however, for Google Cloud Next ‘20, with more than 200 sessions over nine weeks, from July 14 through Sept. 8, a Google Cloud spokesperson told MarketWatch.

Amazon: AWS Insights Online Conference is offering a free half-day “educational immersion” tutorial on media tech capabilities on May 28.

The evolution of developer conferences was inevitable in an era of lightning-fast streaming services, content on demand, and videoconferencing. A developer in say, Spain, can binge-watch cloud-computing solutions on one channel while another in Brazil views an archived keynote speech at roughly the same time. If it sounds suspiciously like a viewing experience on Netflix or Walt Disney Co.’s DIS, -1.95% Disney+, that is the goal, she and others say.

Microsoft was already in the process of “re-imaging” how to connect more with developers to improve engagement, accessibility, resources, and content before COVID-19 — which accelerated its plan, Charlotte Yarkoni, corporate vice president of cloud and AI at Microsoft, told MarketWatch in a phone interview.

“People don’t like watching something that requires you to sit for four hours; they prefer content when they choose to watch regardless of time zones,” said Yarkoni, who called first-day demand and interest of Build “unprecedented.” She said interest in the weeks leading up to the two-day conference signaled that Build would experience a bump. Traffic for Microsoft Learn, a learning-platform for technical content usually used by developers, was up 272% in April, year-over-year, she said. What is more, Microsoft now has more than 72 million monthly active users across its technical documentation and learning sites.

Perhaps, another tech executive suggests, the preponderance of consumers using Zoom Video Communications Inc. ZM, -1.89% has conditioned them to digest technical information online.

“Business-to-business conferences like ours are dependent on people meeting in-person,” Okta Inc. OKTA, +0.20% CEO Todd McKinnon told MarketWatch in a phone interview. But his perception changed after this year’s edition of Okta Live, an all-digital show in early April, drew record attendance. He’s now considering a permanent shift to a hybrid model of both in-person and digital attendees next year and beyond.

“We had tons of leads and off-the-charts engagement with an all-digital format,” McKinnon said after 20,000 attended, compared with 6,000 a year ago.

Nutanix Inc.’s NTNX, +2.68% Global .NEXT Digital Experience was to take place June 30-July 2 in Chicago. Now, it’s scheduled to be online in September.

“COVID-19 has forced Nutanix to think outside the box,” Nutanix Inc. Chief Marketing Officer Ben Gibson told MarketWatch in an email. “Consumers can expect the same great content from our traditional in-person events but on a schedule that best suits them — from the comfort of their home office.”

Before we write off the concept of the classic tech conference — even with the best of intentions and a treasure trove of content, there is no better way to network than in person, Collision’s Cosgrave points out. “Bigger conferences for meant for networking — dinners, cocktails, late-night meetings,” he said. “The flurry of networking is the utility of conferences. Speakers and panels are an excuse to go.”

“At the end of the day, we hope to be back in person in Toronto next year,” he said.

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