Forget Mix, Remember TechEd

Now that Microsoft has formally killed it’s Mix conference let’s talk about how it is going to bring Windows Phone 8 and updates on Windows 8 to developers.  First a little on Mix, then a discussion of the difficulties of conferences in general, then a discussion of what all reports I’ve seen so far miss, and a prediction.

As others have mentioned it was time for Mix to die because its original purpose, convincing Web Developers to use Microsoft technologies, no longer warrants a conference.   Mix was started in an era when there was extensive HTML fragmentation and Microsoft was trying to get developers to focus on the Internet Explorer variant of HTML,  AJAX (much of whose technology Microsoft had invented) had become the new new thing yet Microsoft was considered anti-AJAX, and when the real threat for web domination was being posed by Adobe Flash.  Microsoft responded to Flash technologically by introducing Silverlight and Expression Blend, and Mix was invented as a major tool in reaching out to web developers and, even more importantly, the design community that had coalesced around Flash.  With HTML5 effectively slaying both fragmentation and Adobe Flash (and Silverlight), the justification for Mix ended.

For the last two years Mix was in transition away from its web roots towards being a Windows Phone Developer Conference, and I’d expected this to continue (with a name change).  This wasn’t a planned thing, it was a matter of convenience.  Given the planned  Fall 2010 release of Windows Phone 7, a Spring 2010 developer conference made sense.  And since the Windows Phone 7 app model was based on Silverlight, and its design/development environment based on the same tools as Silverlight, why not use the spring Silverlight-oriented conference as the launchpad?  The schedule and justification remained the same for the Mango release and Mix’11.  And so my expectation had been that Microsoft would repurpose and rename Mix and use its time slot for a new mobile developer oriented conference.  That this didn’t happen is most likely another indication of the synchronization and synergy that is building between Windows Phone 8 and Windows 8.  Why have a separate Windows Phone-oriented developer conference if you are going to have a common app model, tool set, etc.?  Future Windows Phone-specific information should just be a track within a larger Windows developer conference.

What is bothering me right now is a timing issue.  With both Windows 8 and Windows Phone 8 likely hitting RTM this summer or fall isn’t a spring developer event of some form needed?  I think the answer is yes, and I can guess at how Microsoft will address this problem.

Setting up big conference is a nightmare, starting with acquiring a location.  For conferences as big as PDC/Build space is such a huge problem that you generally reserve it a few years in advance.  Taking a little tangent here, when I was running the Quests technical strategy process at Microsoft we had a very tight schedule that was created a year or more in advance to lock down executive calendars.  The entire process had to fit between Labor Day and a set of Executive Briefings (SteveB et al) that were scheduled in December.  This included a conference of the top few hundred technical leaders in the company that had to take place two or three weeks before the Executive Briefings.  One year a late decision came down to hold a PDC, and the only week that a venue could be secured was the week of the Quests conference.  With so many technical leaders involved in PDC we agreed to move the Quests event, but the only date in the narrow range we had to hit we could secure a venue was the same week as a big event Microsoft Research (MSR) holds in China each year.  After discussing this with MSR leadership I decided we’d have to live with diminished MSR participation at the Quests event.  To prevent this scenario from happening again the team behind PDC went back to reserving space for future events a few years into the future.  I don’t know if they are still doing so, but it makes sense that Microsoft already has a location locked down for a potential Build conference this fall.

For any conference that Microsoft would like to hold in which 1000 or more people will attend it is likely that space is already locked down.  Mix would have been a case where the team locked down the “Mix ’12” space a year ago, and so it would have been very convenient to just co-opt that space and create a “Spring Build” conference this year.  It could still happen (i.e., assuming they’d locked down space for Mix in April then a new conference announcement at Mobile World Congress (MWC) would allow barely enough time to get people signed up), but Microsoft’s statement that there would be a single developer conference all but nixes the idea.  Mix was a much smaller conference than Build, and (unless Microsoft planned this at least a year ago) wouldn’t have the space reserved that it would need for the larger joint audience.

While a spring conference of some sort isn’t out of the question, what about a fall event?  A fall event makes sense and I can imagine a large developer conference at that time.  There is only one problem, such a conference will be too late to influence the initial set of applications for Windows Phone 8 and Windows 8.  In this day and age you can educate developers through other means, such as virtual conferences done over the Internet,  road show of events in cities around the world, and other on-line training and resources.  No doubt Microsoft will use all of these.  But that still leaves a gap where you are trying to build developer excitement and give them access directly to product group personnel.  The articles I’ve read about the Mix cancellation have been saying the only event currently on the calendar is MWC, but they are wrong.   The biggest annual event on Microsoft’s calendar is still there, TechEd 2012 is scheduled for June 11-14th in Orlando.

It used to be that TechEd (North America) was the Microsoft event of the year.  The rules of TechEd are to focus on shipping or about to ship products, and so periodically a PDC was held to introduce developers to longer lead time products.  Last year’s Build conference met this need for Windows 8.  With Windows 8 and Windows Phone 8 very close to shipping, it makes a lot of sense for TechEd to include quite a few sessions on those.  TechEd is also an IT (including IT developers) oriented conference.  That’s an audience that Microsoft has not focused enough on the last couple of years, and so re-emphasizing TechEd as part of the Windows 8/Windows Phone 8 launch process would be an excellent move.   In fact, with IT-oriented developers amongst the strongest critics of Metro one might claim that it is imperative that Microsoft strongly court this community.  And I can’t think of a better way to do so than to turn TechEd into a major Windows 8 event.  Likewise one of the biggest complaints about Windows Phone is how it largely abandoned Enterprise use in favor of a consumer focus for Windows Phone 7 (and only a modest improvement for Mango).  Windows Phone 8 likely returns the Enterprise to being an equal focus for Windows Phone, once again making TechEd an ideal forum for re-engaging the IT audience.

TechEd has other advantages as well.  It is not just a single US-based event, but rather a series of worldwide events.  For example TechEd North America in mid June is quickly followed up by TechEd Europe in Amsterdam in late June.  In some regions (e.g., India holds its TechEd significantly before the North America event) this leaves TechEd out of sync as a Windows 8/Windows Phone 8 launch event.  But the content remains relevant throughout the year (so it can still be used at TechEd India 2013).  No doubt Microsoft would use other means to reach develoeprs in those regions.

About the only downside I see to using TechEd as the springboard for Windows Phone 8 developers, and an update for Windows 8 developers, is that it isn’t appropriate for gaming or other purely consumer centric app developers.  But nothing is perfect, and you can use other events or tools to reach those for whom TechEd is not the best forum.

So, is TechEd the next really big event on the calendar for Microsoft-oriented developers focused on Windows 8 and Windows Phone 8?  That’s the conclusion I’m coming to as I read the tea leaves.  I won’t be surprised if I’m wrong.  But if I’m right I do think it would turn out to be an inspired move on Microsoft’s part.


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