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Has Mobile World Congress been fatally disrupted by Covid-19?

Some are concerned that MWC might not be quite the same next month, but, as Nick Booth finds out, don’t say that to TelcoDR – it’s fighting talk!

Asked to name the greatest challenge to being a statesman, a British prime minister sagely replied: “Events, dear boy, events.”

I think Harold Macmillan would have needed all his pragmatism, unflappability and wit for Mobile World Congress (MWC) in June. You’d think a trip to Barcelona would be a bacchanalian carnival of networking bonhomie, when we can all put down our jargon shields and relax our protocols and some rack up some impressive people-to-people transactions. It should be, but it’s not always like that.

Danielle Royston, founder of cloud migration specialist TelcoDR, certainly thinks old-fashioned face-to-face meetings are best. After Ericsson dropped out of MWC, Royston bravely accepted the challenge of filling the 6,000m2 of stand space at the Fira Exhibition Centre.

That’s quite a task, given that TelcoDR is a relatively small agency. Still, if this Texas-based “cloud evangelist” can talk the likes of Three and Deutsche Telekom into migrating to the public cloud, she is capable of anything. Telcos are the least agile enterprises in the business – they make government computing departments look like gazelles.

Royston is planning to rent out the MWC stand space to channel players such as systems integrators and service providers.

It could be worth your while attending one of the last face-to-face exhibitions left, according to Royston. Telcos are finally leaving their dried-up watering holes and preparing for a long migration.

“I’ve been talking with hundreds of telco execs, and the cloud migration flywheel is starting to turn,” says Royston. “I’m the world’s expert when it comes to moving to the public cloud.”

As proof, she can personally recount moves away from on-premise computing by Vodafone, SK Telecom, Truphone, Telefonica, Verizon to public cloud services. In most cases, Amazon Web Services (AWS) or Azure seem to be picking up the business – but in Brazil, Telefonica used Aura.

There will be huge redundancies when the telcos go to the public cloud. Three UK has cut 67% of its IT jobs. And much of the traditional manual work involved in disaster recovery, storage and continuity will eliminated, according to TM Forum’s chief analyst Mark Newman. So, recruiters could take some stand space. This is one emotionally charged area where the human chemistry of a face-to-face meeting cannot be replicated online.

A resistance to return

However, having broken their addiction to in-person meetings, many people don’t want to go back.

One colleague from the telecoms industry tells me she’s ecstatic not to be going to Barcelona. Personally, I can think of nothing better than sitting on La Rambla, with one hand on my beer and the other gripping my mobile phone even tighter.

Watching a herd of delegates entering the boulevard is as compelling as any wildebeest crossing of the Seronera River in the Serengeti National Park. The delegates are seeking fresh watering holes, but as they make the perilous crossing many are preyed on by conmen, porn merchants and pick pockets. It’s like going on a safari where you are the hunted. You don’t get that sort of excitement in an online conference.

We mention this because conferences have been physical events for decades. They were wasteful, but you could guarantee three things: human chemistry, alcohol and chats with people who said they were never coming again.

Be careful what you wish for – now there’s a new breed of online event organisers taking over.

The importance of serendipity

Percona’s global event recently arranged an online conference which gathered open source devotees to ask how they could stop public cloud providers hijacking their projects and then offer them as web services. Cloud operators take things for free and sell for a fee. Online is the best place for a complicated debate about how channel companies can make money out of open source.

At exhibitions, big vendors tend to screen dreadful cliched corporate films that don’t get to the point quickly at all. But online, you have to hold people’s attention or they’ll talk to someone else.

“We were told there were two main bad things with conferences,” says Bronwyn Campbell, manager of global events at Percona. “The wasted time in transit and the sessions where we were promised insights and get sales pitches – or, worse, ego trips.”

The best thing about any conference is you learn so much from the people that you meet by chance. “There’s a lot to be said for serendipity at these things,” says Campbell.

The over-riding advantage with virtual events is the inclusion, says Campbell. “You can get more people together when they don’t have to worry about flight costs and hotel expenses getting covered. We got six times more people at our event online compared to the physical conference the year before, and the audience was more diverse. That can only be good for the open source community.”

Online conferences are like the early days of a cult scene – anyone can have a go.

Quantity over quality?

Mikolaj Pawlikowski, author of Chaos Engineering and leader of the Kubernetes team at Bloomberg, set up Conf42, last year, so that people like him could talk about the cloud, Kubernetes and chaos engineering. He’s like the Malcolm McLaren of conferences.

Pawlikowshi said he was fed up with online meetings with artificial constraints, such as “talks only available at certain times despite being pre-recorded, poor quality recordings and a cacophony of voices”. Conference organisers have got away with that for decades, and its only thanks to Covid that change has been catalysed.

The worst thing about conferences was that vendors went for the numbers, says Pawlikowski. They were forced to do that to convince the finance boss that the huge amount of money they’d spent was justified. “It should be about quality, not quantity,” says Pawlikoski, adding that he does miss the days when “you could be paid for learning new stuff”. 

The most recent Conf42 featured 100 speakers and 1,000 community members, and the organisers say the organically attained network continues to grow.

Events are not dead, just different, says Isabella Brandt, global events lead for o9 Solutions.

“We have certainly seen a rise in demand for webinars and on-demand videos. With the right line-up of speakers and content, events can be successful in digital form too,” says Brandt.

The recent AIM10x Global event aimed for 3,000 registrations, and ended up with 4,800 people looking to discuss ways to safely digitise business planning, decision-making and analysis.

“We have had to adapt our way of doing things. Digital events have a bigger reach and the audience is interested in listening and engaging with the speakers and their stories,” says Brandt. But she warns: “The industry needs to keep innovating to avoid virtual fatigue.”

Last year’s Twilio’s Signal customer and developer conference migrated into a virtual format. Rather than looking for an out-of-the-box online platform to host the event, it decided to build a solution from scratch – in a matter of months. Let’s do the show right here – as they say in London’s Theatreland – but not in Earl’s Court any more.

Twilio turned to its own people “Twilions” to build a bespoke platform that had 15,000 remote attendees over the two-day event.

“It’s hard to bring back the energy of an on-stage keynote and the excitement of interacting with so many different people,” says Tricia Miller, vice-president of Twilio’s Europe, Middle East and Africa (EMEA) marketing. Seamless chat and video functions could go some way towards recreating some of that event magic, she adds.

I’m not so sure. I’m hoping that Daniel Royston fills the all 6,000m2 of her stand space. There’s still time to take some up! But don’t tell Royston that free speech is dead, where Royston comes from – Texas – that’s fighting talk.

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