June 16, 2009

Changes Abound for Open Source Conferences This Summer

Though most open source software development is done online by people collaborating around the world, the tough economy is certainly affecting how open source developers get together in person at conferences and trade shows this year.

The Novell BrainShare conference, scheduled for this past March in Salt Lake City, was cancelled because of high travel costs and related lower attendance expectations.

IDG's annual LinuxWorld Conference & Expo is being cut to two days this August, from three or four in past years, and has been renamed OpenSource World to take in a broader scope of the IT industry. It also integrates a new CloudWorld event this year.

And the O'Reilly Open Source Conference (OSCON) has been relocated from Portland, OR, to San Jose, CA, this July to help save tight travel funds for tech-savvy Bay Area attendees.

So what will all of these changes mean for open source developers and their projects? Will this negatively affect how open source work is done?

Not necessarily, according to a sampling of open source community members who shared their views on how this summer's open source conference schedule is shaping up.

William "whurley" Hurley, chief architect of open source strategy at Houston-based BMC Software Inc., said in an e-mail reply that "while these changes can seem daunting to some, I think it's important to remember that most open source developers function independently of geography or physical contact with other developers. I'm sure most of the people reading this can name at least 10 people they interact with whom they've never met."

New types of hands-on training events, including BarCamps, DevCamps 'and other unconference formats,' are turning out to often be more valuable for developers to attend because they gain real experience and knowledge at such conferences, as opposed to glitzy, old-style trade shows, whurley wrote. "These smaller, more freestyle events are taking over the industry. They usually prove to provide more value to the participants at little or no cost."

"The days of the uber conference in the tech industry are over," he wrote. "It's always nice to network and meet people you've only known online. If you're looking for a job, or a new project to work on these types of events can be very useful. However, people are starting to question the value of conferences where you have to pay $1000 or more just to get in the door for a couple of days. High dollar conferences are becoming very difficult for developers to explain to their management, let alone get approved."

Ross Turk, director of community for the SourceForge.net online software development portal, said that some of the changes this year are good ones. OSCON's move to San Jose means that more SourgeForge personnel can attend because that's where the organization is based, Turk said. "It gives us a lot of chances to be with users," he said.

Turk said that he's seen the effects of the down economy up close as he's been assembling an industry panel for a Web 2.0 conference in New York this November. Many prospective panelists have said they couldn't join him due to high travel costs while budgets remain tight, Turk said.

Many traditional conferences are changing today, he said, and they may not go back to how they were just a few years ago. "In the past decade since LinuxWorld began, it started as a community event and became a big iron industry event," Turk said. "Maybe with the economy the way it is, they've started to realize that big iron won't do as well, while the open source community will do well in this economy. Open source still seems to be driving ahead."

It's also possible, he said, that "LinuxWorld lost its edge when it got too vendor-focused."

Kieran Lal, sales and marketing spokesman for the Andover, Mass.-based Drupal project, an open source Web content management application--said he values these kinds of industry conferences because they allow him to get the word out about Drupal to a large number of potential technology partners and users at one time. "In-person meetings are critical," he said. "Conferences are more important for us than ever now due to economy."

By holding such meetings at conferences, one trip can substitute for many individual trips to meet with far-flung partners and users, he said. "Everyone's there, you can get everything done," he said.

There are even benefits to the slow economy, he said. "They're making it easier to go to these conferences," he said of many event organizers. "They're often discounting registrations, there are cheaper hotels online and airfares can be cheap if you shop around and book in advance. Maybe in the boom times it would have been more expensive. Now because of the down economy, you can actually get out there and get it all done for $600 or something like that."

A spokeswoman for IDG World Expo's OpenSource World conference declined to comment about this year's refocused event. The company has, however, dropped its admission fees for the event this year to try to bring in more IT professionals, according to an IDG News report.

Kerry J. Adorno, a spokeswoman for Novell, said the company will talk with customers and partners and re-evaluate the economy later this year to determine if BrainShare is viable again next March.

Not all of this year's open source conference news is bad, though.

In fact, The Linux Foundation, the sponsor of the Linux.com Web site, is holding its first ever LinuxCon from Sept. 21 to 23 in Portland, OR.

Angela Brown, event and marketing manager for the San Francisco-based group, said that the Foundation's successful Linux Plumbers Conference last year, held for developers who work on kernel sub-systems, was so successful that the group decided to hold a similar conference aimed at the broader Linux technical community, she said. "And that is how LinuxCon came to be," Brown said. "And it is shaping up to be a great event--excellent content and speakers, including Linus Torvalds. We have a number of community events that are co-locating with it as well."

Joe "Zonker" Brockmeier, Novell's openSUSE Community Manager, said in an e-mail response that while larger, traditional IT trade shows are facing tough times lately, smaller, regional open source events are doing quite well because they give value in training, experience and bringing developers together, at much lower cost than larger events.

"There are more Linuxfests and regional events than ever," he wrote. "I'll be going to SouthEast LinuxFest, a brand-new 'fest in South Carolina. Small, community run, regional events are doing just fine."

Allison Randal, the program chairwoman for OSCON, said it's been a challenging year for conferences due to the down economy, but that even so, technology people still do have to get together. One expected upswing, she said, is the number of attendees at conferences who are laid off workers looking for new jobs. "People will be more visible in the exhibit halls because that's where you meet potential employers," she said.

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