An attendee wears a face mask while waiting for a keynote to start at the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) on January 6, 2022 in Las Vegas, Nevada.
Photo: Patrick T. Fallon/AFP via Getty Images

Big tech conferences aren’t coming back

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Good morning! Do you miss roaming a convention center with a tech conference badge? Or the summer camp vibe of reuniting with industry peers you haven’t seen in years? Well, the virtual events necessitated by the pandemic appear to be sticking around. So is the in-person tech event a thing of the past? I'm Allison Levitsky, and I once worked as a Frida Kahlo impersonator at SFMOMA.

RIP IRL tech events

The pandemic’s darkest days have passed and in-person gatherings are back, but the virtual events that emerged during the pandemic have staying power. Some of tech’s biggest conferences are hanging on to a hybrid element — if not remaining entirely online.

We’re fully into year three of the pandemic, and Big Tech’s conferences are still mostly virtual. The events once packed thousands of attendees into large convention centers in exotic locales like San Jose and Las Vegas, but this week, Apple announced that its annual developers conference would once again be an online event, and Facebook parent company Meta is also putting its annual developers event on pause.

  • Meta is putting F8 on ice to focus on “building the metaverse.” The company told Protocol that it’s still contemplating how F8 will evolve and that online events allow for more-focused content and a wider audience.
  • Meta is still planning other developer events, including an “inaugural business messaging event” called Conversations on May 19. That event is — you guessed it — entirely virtual. Hybrid events might be possible in the future, Meta said.
  • On May 11-12, Google I/O will be broadcast for a “limited live audience,” which spokesperson Alex Garcia-Kummert said would be mostly Google employees along with some partners and developers. The event is free to anyone online.
  • Apple is taking a similar approach: WWDC will take place online from June 6-10, with an in-person keynote and State of the Union viewing event at Apple Park on June 6. (Developers and students have to apply to attend the in-person get-together.)
  • That’s the third year in a row WWDC will take place virtually, and the second for Google I/O.

Other companies are going all-in on hybrid conferences. This combines the benefits of in-person gatherings — networking, more immersive experiences, a captive audience — with the wider audience and deeper focus of online sessions.

  • Salesforce is hosting a developer conference, TrailblazerDX, in San Francisco later this month. While the company will put “limited episodes” from the conference on its streaming service, Salesforce+, the company is warning attendees that “the full experience” will be found in person.
  • VMware is also going with a hybrid approach for its VMware Explore event in August and September, which will take place both in San Francisco and online.
  • Salesforce’s Dreamforce event is on the calendar for late September with a hybrid approach of in-person and virtual. Highlights will be available on Salesforce+. The conference was also hybrid last year.

In-person networking is a big part of the appeal of conferences. But apparently, that’s not deterring tech companies from making their developer conferences virtual.

  • Admit it: No one has figured out how to make online gatherings feel anywhere near as sociable as in-person ones. But so far, Big Tech seems to be OK with that tradeoff when it comes to developer conferences, which can reach a wider audience online.
  • Hybrid will likely be the popular approach, particularly for shows that lean on the in-person element. CES returned to Las Vegas this year with a hybrid show, though in-person attendance was decidedly muted in the midst of the omicron variant outbreak. The consumer electronics showcase is planning to try again next January.
  • But will Big Tech ever go back to in-person product launches? From an audience reach and production quality standpoint, virtual seems to work well. Still, there’s something anticlimactic about reducing these once-theatrical events to streaming content with no opportunities for the press and influencers to go hands-on with the latest hardware and software.

We’ll have to see whether Apple takes the wraps off its latest iPhone with a splashy IRL event this September. Either way, the more technical tech conferences are likely to stay at least partially, if not mostly, online — or maybe in, IDK, the metaverse?


— Allison Levitsky (email | twitter)

On the calendar

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Net zero. Carbon offsets. Scope 3 emissions. These are just some of the terms you’ll find in Big Tech’s climate plans. Understanding what they actually mean is vital to ensuring the industry is meeting its goals. Join us at 10 a.m. PT April 19, where Protocol's Brian Kahn will talk with some of the people responsible for setting those goals and experts who are monitoring them to find out what tech companies are really doing. RSVP here.

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