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By | Mark Whitehorn 12th May 2007 04:28

Steve Ballmer may have said something interesting; we couldn’t possibly comment...

A non-report from the third and final day of Microsoft’s BI conference

To criticise Microsoft is, of course, to attack not only an easy target but also a popular one. Many people hate the big M for the simple (and undeniable) reason that it is successful. This is a comfortable reason to hate a company because it guarantees an unending supply of hate figures; if/when the big M falls from grace another one will be along in a moment. But success is an irrational reason for criticism, of course, unlike stupidity which is a perfectly valid one.

Without prior warning, at 3:59PM yesterday afternoon, Microsoft announced that Steve Ballmer’s keynote today was off-limits to journalists:

Photo of empty pressroom

As the deadline for the keynote approached,

the press room heaved with excitement...

I should have mentioned this
in our meeting that Steve
Ballmer’s keynote address 
tomorrow is closed to the press.
His keynote address is geared
toward customers and partners only.
I apologize for the inconvenience
and for not mentioning this earlier.

Bear in mind that this is completely without precedent. PR dudes normally go around the press room with whips before a keynote. The whole point of inviting journalists to a conference is to have them do the journaling thing. You don’t then ban them.

Imagine, gentle reader, that you are a news vulture at the conference. Awoken from your afternoon slumber by the news, your first thought is that Mr. Ballmer has decided to share a piece of information so tantalizingly choice that it is fit only for the ears of the delegates and not the World. You are a vulture; you catch the pungent whiff of the story of a lifetime. The image of a Pulitzer begins to appear, hovering above your nest … And then you pause for thought.

Is Ballmer really going to share a big secret with (let’s see, 2,600 minus the journos, that’s roughly) 2,590 people? What can it possibly be!!!!????? Something that would rock the share price? Isn’t there a law against that kind of announcement? No, it can’t be that. Is he going to appear on stage in a bath? (Don’t laugh, I’ve seen Don Box do that before now; it isn’t against the law but it should be.) What can this secret thing possibly be?????

Then you start to muse on the meaning of secret. Would you share a secret with 2,590 strangers? Indeed, if you share a secret with 2,590 strangers, is it still a secret? What is the sound of one hand sharing a secret in a wood?

Then there are bloggers. Once upon a time journos were privileged in the sense that they were one of the few groups who could share their thoughts/rambling/opinions with the public. One of the huge strengths of the internet is that it has levelled that playing field to within a micron of its life. If there is anything interesting in the presentation then multiple people will blog it and journalists can read blogs. So sharing a secret with 2,590 highly computer literate people is exactly the same as announcing it to the press. Steve knows that, the journalists know that and the attendees know that.

Or, was Microsoft ahead of us on this one? Was it going to have burly security guards ready to wrestle known bloggers to the ground as they tried to enter the hall? Assuming not (shame because that is Pulitzer territory) we were left with intriguing possibility that Microsoft still hadn’t got its corporate brain around blogging. That Microsoft truly thought that banning journalists would contain the announcement to the people within the room.

As a journalist, this is achingly tempting to believe but, before writing it, we thought we had better just check those boring old ‘fact’ things and so we asked Microsoft why it was banning the press. The response was that Microsoft would “like to focus on the fee paying attendees so that they value the event.”

Right. So that meant this was all about the feel-good factor for the attendees. Tell them the press was excluded and that this was for-their-eyes only. Wow. That’s going to work. Right up until the point where those 2,590 people work out for themselves that, for exactly the reasons outlined above, a secret shared with 2,590 computer-literate people is about as exclusive as shopping at Wal-Mart. I’d give that about eight seconds.

For some reason the keynote was delayed by an hour. We may not have been allowed to attend, but we circled outside the keynote, waiting to pick off attendees as they staggered out into the light. When they finally emerged, the story got even weirder. No secrets and no announcement that it was a ‘secret’ session. So, no feel-good factor. In turn, no feel-bad factor 8 seconds later, but then what was the point of the exercise?

We’re left with two alternatives. It is a conspiracy of some kind. Oh, so tempting but a conspiracy has to have a point. THEY have to have an ulterior motive. What? Where? How? We can’t see it.

The other possibility is that it is simply a mistake. Someone in Microsoft said “Let’s do the news on the first two days. Steve won’t be doing any so you’d better tell the journos not to bother waiting around for the keynote on the third day.” By a process of Chinese whispers that transmogrified into “Journalist are banned from Ballmer’s keynote.” Once the edict had been passed, too much face would have been lost in admitting the mistake so they ran with it.

So, ironically for a BI conference, Microsoft demonstrated Business without the Intelligence.

So, what can I tell you about Steve's keynote? One of the attendees, Eric Rydberg from EDS (not a journalist) gave me a detailed account. He said it was fine. Ballmer was quite energetic but not as pumped as he has been on occasions. No bouncing around on stage. He had some other guys up on stage. They talked. One was a bit boring. No great announcements. Others confirmed the story… Or lack of it.

So, the bad news is that you have had to sit and read this long and rambling account of how Microsoft managed to accidentally ban journalists from a keynote. It's a first in the history of technical conferences as far as I know. The good is that it is probably more exciting than the same number of words devoted to Ballmer being slightly interesting, a little bit bouncy and not announcing any news.

But ignoring all of that - was the conference good? It was fantastic. Microsoft may make mistakes but it does know how to put together an excellent conference. The speakers were good, the material was excellent. I was delighted to see several sessions’ ‘chalk and talks’ devoted to my favourite language, MDX. If you work in BI using Microsoft tools then you must attend the next one. And who knows, you may get to see some bloggers being brought to the ground by security guards, so bring a camera. ®

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