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December 18, 2008

Vendor shivvers timbers of user conferences

Apple has torn down the legacy of its annual user conference, axing the vendor's participation in the 25-year-old event after next month's MacWorld and leaving a computer community without a supplier's support for a massive, legendary conference. This event differs from HP's 2005 actions to compete with and  hobble the 30-year Interex-HP World meetings. But the conference strategy is similar for these two computing vendors who, in all other matters, couldn't be more different.

The new vendor mecca for conferences is control, and the alternatives revolve around media coverage that is better-read than in the days of printed publications and no Internet.

In-person meetings have become a footnote to both vendors' saga that is shared with customers. Everyone acknowledges that the quality of conferences exceeds the vendor-controlled events and online communication, even down to the most recent social network opportunities. Things are discovered on an expo floor and inside training rooms that can't be replicated in any other way.

Connect formed up this year to keep up its voice with Hewlett-Packard, growing from 10,000 member of Encompass to more than 50,000 when HP Interex Europe and the Tandem/NonStop ITUG groups were allied. HP never did anything so game-changing as Apple ending its participation with a major user group meeting. Apple is known for tossing out the rulebook, though. In the long run, the HP community might see the same kind of departure as Apple's, even from a conference now called the HP Technology Forum & Expo.

At the moment, however, Connect is creating new ways for HP to participate with the community. HP is stepping up, too. But the vendor, just like Apple, will measure its return on the marketing investment from meetings like the HPTF (now held annually in Las Vegas, at HP's behest) as well as the new Community Connect Europe 2008 conference. The Euro event wrapped up last month with just 450 attendees on hand. Connect notes that in addition to 450 people on hand, the event had

More than 30 exhibitors, a dedicated German track, 12 hands-on labs, two stellar keynote presentations, numerous networking receptions, and an Executive Question & Answer Panel session

Mounting and hosting computer conferences is a business getting tougher with every year. Apple's exit shook the community to its bones. Apple CEO Steve Jobs won't even give his famous new product talk in next month's MacWorld, a black turtleneck-clad performance that defined the year for the most ardent Apple customers. Apple believes, according to a statement from PR, that it has so many other ways to reach customers, like the Apple Retail stores that see traffic of 3.5 million customers each year.

But the analysts speculate that Apple was tired of moving mountains to make product announcements in January, the ever-present date for MacWorld. The iPhone, Apple's conversion to Intel, the sexy but underpowered Mac Air — all were events I witnessed, with the buzz on the expo floor afterward set at High Roar.

However, the products were rarely ready at showtime, with delays between three to six months. The publicity was profound from an event that guaranteed headlines and a stock pop — even when, of late, the announcements were a disappointment. Apple wanted to announce on its own schedule, at other venues like its Worldwide Developer Conference or press-analyst events. In short, the vendor wanted control of its message, not needing a community effort to make a splash with big attendance and a wide range of third party rollouts.

Hewlett-Packard had the same aim in its changes to user conference participation, starting with its 2005 HPTF kickoff. The user groups dictated a good share of the content in the new format, but now the Forum was full of confidential disclosure meetings, pep talks on how to sell HP solutions, and scant regard for the marketing quotient of presentations. Interex, even in the days when it cast its lot as the HP World expo, prided itself on talks "marketing free" and conflict between customers and vendor, aired sometimes-politely right out in public.

Apple has set a new standard for a vendor's participation in a conference and expo for its customers. The 2010 pullout makes next month's MacWorld the likely site for quite a wake, although the conference organizers have already vowed to mount a 2010 show, sans-Apple.

The HP community faced this prospect only a few times for much smaller venues. A user organization called SuperGroup attemped a competition with Interex in the late 1980s, but HP stayed away from the SuperGroup floor and the show went nowhere, playing to small crowds for just one year. Hewlett-Packard scaled back its sponsorhip in a big way for the 2005 HP World conference, and Interex couldn't even keep its user group doors open on the reduced booth revenues. There were other problems at Interex, things that Connect and Encompass would never tolerate. Connect is as different from Interex as Apple is from HP.

The lesson and action to be taken by HP community members is to enjoy and utilize the Connect and HPTF meetings while HP supports them. Right now Connect is mounting its membership campaign with profound value. Just $50 gets a one-year membership for an individual. Here at the NewsWire we're members, gaining access to things like the presentations from the Connect Europe conference because of our membership.

As for Apple's exit, it might be a mistake for the top engineering stars, and the growing SMB and enterprise adopters who are helping that corporation grow in new markets. But Apple is killing off a darling in a swift stroke, something which HP 3000 customers will recall.

09:44 PM in Newsmakers | Permalink

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