While Microsoft may prefer making in-person connections, going completely virtual has opened up the event to those who may not have been able to travel to Seattle, where Build is normally held. In the past, attendees were about 80% US residents. This year, 65% of attendees are from the rest of the world, according to Microsoft.
Presentations were packed with the cheesy, staged jokes you’d typically catch at a live tech event but with nods to social distancing and life in self-isolation. Although developers lacked the chance to network with other attendees, the event did offer an opportunity for reporters to ask questions and interact through its chat platform Teams. Meanwhile, developers once again used the hashtag #MSBuild on Twitter to share thoughts and engage with others.
There are tradeoffs. An online-only event prevents Microsoft from hosting a captive audience, one that can’t sneak away to the kitchen for a bit to make a sandwich. That may make it harder to get their feedback and guidance on new products after each session. But the general selling points are hard to dismiss.
Rather than physically traveling from one room to another in time to catch crowded breakout sessions, and consequently missing good chunks of them, the livestream format saves attendees time by cutting straight to the presentations and allowing more time for demos, noted Ramon Llamas of IDC Research, who has attended multiple Build events in the past. He noted the datasets shared on screen were sometimes hard to read due to the small type size, but the same challenge may present itself when you’re in the audience in a large auditorium.
Perhaps the most obvious incentive to attend a fully-produced tech event virtually rather than attending in person is the cost savings: Instead of paying $2,395 for a pass this year, Microsoft made the conference available to anyone who wanted to watch for free. (Not to mention the savings associated with the cost of a plane ticket and hotel room.)
The massive increase in attendees from last year is a big victory for the company, giving more developers the ability to learn how they can build products for Microsoft from the sessions that wouldn’t have otherwise made the livestream.
Bejan said about 95% of the presenters are remotely delivering keynotes from their home offices, bedrooms and kitchens.
“What’s interesting about the time we’re in right now is, of course, we’re being forced to focus on this new medium,” said Bejan, noting he worked closely with the engineering teams to move the event fully online. “We were taking some very significant technology risks [in the planning process]. It’s risky because we’re putting it into production immediately with large numbers of attendees.”
But Microsoft has pulled off a compelling, complex tech marathon of an event. With Apple’s WWDC around the corner, CEO Tim Cook and friends have a high bar to meet. The iPhone maker is also waiving its typical $1,599 fee for developers to attend.
While there’s a lot of uncertainty around when we’ll realistically reconnect at a large-scale event in the future, this week proved it’s possible for attendees to still get a lot out of a virtual conference, without all of the time, travel logistics and costs to make it happen.