Can VoIP Survive the Post-VON Era?

The big news on the trade show front this week, of course, is Apple’s announcement that next month will mark the company’s final appearance at the Macworld Conference and Expo, which has served as the premier Apple-oriented trade show event for nearly 25 years.

Roiling the waters further, Steve Jobs decided this year to hand over Keynote Address responsibilities to Apple’s nominative number two man, Phil Schiller, the company’s senior vice president of Worldwide Product Marketing. Schiller will fill a role that has been instrumental in keeping alive the flame of Jobs’ personal mythology as an icon of American business and technological innovation. And Apple has used the Macworld Keynote over the years to introduce its newest, most groundbreaking products. Read as much or as little into this as you will, but Apple even named its Microsoft Powerpoint-killing software product “Keynote.”

Needless to say, expectations are low for Schiller to introduce something momentous next month in San Francisco.

In the wake of Apple’s announcement there has been plenty of concern for the long-term viability of the Macworld conference itself. Already the victim of major exhibitors pulling out of or scaling back participation in this year’s event, the conference is seen by many having little reason to exist without the participation of the very entity whose product-line it serves to promote. Indeed, the conference organizer, IDG has made no public promises beyond saying it has dates booked for a Macworld conference in 2010.

Jeff Pulver

Jeff Pulver

While front page news because of the cult-like status of Jobs and the company he heads, Apple’s abandoning Macworld is merely part of a larger trend in which the trade show model for marketing new products and new industries has been getting more and more expensive for exhibitors. In lean economic times, big companies like Apple see trade shows as a place to cut costs while municipalities try to squeeze more dollars out of convention space bookings, and hotels and restaurants try to get more dollars out of a declining audience of attendees. It’s just not a healthy environment for trade shows today.

Which brings me to VoIP and to the industry’s premier public event, Pulvermedia’s VON.

During the period between 2002 and 2006 VON attendance grew exponentially. The mood on trade show floors in Boston and San Jose, as well as at events in Europe and Asia, spoke of an industry on the come, with excitement bubbling among exhibitors and attendees alike. But something was going on beneath the surface all that time. The downside of there being an expensive event your company felt like it couldn’t miss is, as one regular exhibitor told me, “VON was a blast and Jeff’s a great guy and the VON appreciaton party was always fun, but in the end, we felt like it was really a waste of money from the standpoint of the new business we’d generate from it.”

That feeling was likely shared on some level by enough people because VON died an abrupt death after Spring VON 2008 in San Jose, when Pulvermedia’s financial backers TICC pulled the plug. Without going into detail or coming to any conclusions here about the reasons for the death of VON, questions remain about what effect the trade show’s disappearance will have on the growth of voice and video over the Internet.

Will companies such as Cisco, Polycom and Digium follow the Apple model and begin hosting their own, tightly controlled, carefully hyped product announcement events? Will another production company step into the void and organize a new brand as the trade show face of VoIP? Will VON’s one-time competitors, the smaller, more nimble shows such as ITC continue to survive and be sufficient to move the industry along?

I asked Jeff Pulver to share his thoughts and comments for this article but haven’t heard back from him as of press time. I’ll update when and if I do. One thing is certain, as the calendar year comes to a close and the larger economy looks at potentially rocky times ahead, the spring of 2009 is going to seem even more unmoored in the VoIP industry with no reason for people to find the way to San Jose.

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  • Yeah, VON is definitely missed. There are a couple of other much smaller Unified Communications and IP Communications conferences around, but they pale in importance to what Pulver created. VON was the only event in which one had a good sense that innovation in communications came from something other than a CEO’s jargony plan to a make a quick buck doing the “me too” thing.

    Pulver sold VON once before and then bought it back. Can it happen twice?