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The rebirth of high-tech gabathons

With a boom in high-tech conferences again underway, CNET's Charles Cooper asks whether companies are really getting their money's worth.

I was recently invited to a Silicon Valley kaffeeklatsch billed as the gathering for folks who want to find out what will define the next phase of the computer industry. The conference fee ranges from $1,695 to $2,790, depending on whether I select the "invitation price," the "standard price" or the "walk-in" price. Besides absorbing the received wisdom of the dot-com headliners who are the big draw, I'm entitled to a free book the organizers are throwing into the package because, hey, they are just great sports.

Expensive mini-conferences fell out of fashion during the bust, but now that the tech business is on the mend, they are back with a vengeance.

I suppose that's a promising harbinger for the greater technology business. In any case, these slick e-brochures are flooding my in-box. One promises that I'll walk away with deep insights into the next stage in the development of the Internet; another claims to be the only venue that brings together the real movers and shakers. And so on and so forth.

Whether these gabathons are truly worth the price of admission is another matter. The answer may depend on whether you find yourself in a swanky resort, an exotic locale or some burg with a reputation for exceedingly naughty entertainment. Des Moines in December? Make mine Cannes in June.

But before bugging your boss for permission to jet off to Big Thinker's 2004 in Cancun, ponder Cooper's Law of Bloviation--which posits an inverse relationship between the number of speechifying multimillionaires on display and the improbability of deriving any benefits from sitting in the audience (besides logging quality snooze time).

There are exceptions to the rule, but most tech confabs follow a predictably rigid routine.
There are exceptions to the rule, but most tech confabs follow a predictably rigid routine. A procession of chubsters follow each other on stage to yammer on about this or that. "Hey, we're rich, so (presumably) we know." It is not long before at least half the attendees slip into the corridor, where the conversation is infinitely more interesting. Plus, there's coffee.

On one pre-bust trip I made to Prague for a hoity-toity conference, a then-tech CEO delivered a keynote in which he proclaimed the innate superiority of American business values and practices.

Talk about innocents abroad. And this was about a year before the likes of Enron and WorldCom punctured our pretensions.

In an industry where so many claim to have a bead on the next big thing, hot air is an occupational hazard. Everyone's scrambling to make sure that they don't get caught flat-footed when a new technology changes the landscape. So hats off to the sharpies who have figured out how to parlay that hunger for knowledge into cash cows for themselves.

Still, you have to wonder why companies still let themselves get suckered into paying prime dollar for questionable return. Habits die hard. Speakers, slide shows, panels, sponsors. This is the way things have always been done, but are there alternatives?

Software entrepreneur and blogger extraordinaire Dave Winer earlier this year organized a mini-conference that attempted to function more like a live Web log, complete with discussion leaders and pointers and more "class participation" than the traditional conference. It's a good example of thinking outside of the box but probably too democratic--or too frightening--for mass adoption.

Maybe the technology business needs to pass through another big slowdown to shake people out of their torpor. In the meantime, I think I'm about to get uninvited to that kaffeeklatsch.