Microsoft has announced that the Microsoft Exchange Conference (MEC) is coming back with the first conference planned for Orlando in September 24-26 2012. I think that this is terrific news. It’s something for which I have lobbied many Microsoft people over a long period and although I claim no credit for the decision, I am pleased because it shows a welcome willingness to listen to the technical community. Full details of the conference are not yet available as they are being worked out by Microsoft, but you can get some idea of the passion behind the return from the name of the event's web site (MECisBack.com).
MEC began at a time when Exchange competed against a wide range of other email systems from Lotus Notes to Digital’s ALL-IN-1 and MailWorks to Novell GroupWise. A need existed to inform customers and potential buyers about the product’s potential and how the technology in Exchange really worked. MEC allowed the Exchange developers to meet their target audience and learn from customers about the features that were really needed to make the product ultra-competitive. The unique combination of people, information, and the competitive environment resulted in much fun and many stories, some of which have greatly improved as they've been retold over the last decade.
Running a MEC at the World Trade Center in Boston (September 1998) to poke fun at Lotus was indicative of the can-do attitude encouraged by leaders such as Brian Valentine. On the other hand, I’m not sure that the Seaport Hotel across the road from the WTC has ever recovered from some of the parties held by the Exchange development group at that event.
The passion and energy at MEC sessions delivered by Microsoft and partners was amazing, probably because MEC was the place where you learn stuff that couldn’t be found elsewhere. But remember, this was a time when the Internet did not have the same influence that it exerts today – searching across hundreds of blogs dedicated to Exchange content just didn’t happen. In addition, TechNet didn’t have the same depth or breadth of content and the training available for Exchange often took a “click, click, and have a nice day” tour around options presented by administrator tools rather than making an attempt to explain why and how the technology worked in the way that it did.
MEC lasted just a few years before it became a victim to the one-size-fits-all approach taken by other Microsoft conferences such as TechEd. In short, MEC lost its mojo when it was forced to follow corporate branding guidelines and it was no surprise when Microsoft terminated a separate conference dedicated to Exchange after the 2002 event. I think MEC had become fat, dumb, and happy and had lost its ability to excite and delight the installed base, possibly contributed to by Microsoft internal politics that forced MEC to dedicate time to other collaboration technologies whose development group didn’t have the same attitude as the Exchange group did. To be fair to Microsoft, the economy was weak in 2002 and the chance to merge MEC and TechEd probably looked very sensible.
Other problems existed with the international versions of MEC, where even the delights of Nice couldn’t mask the fact that Microsoft sent very much a reserve line-up of speakers to these events. It’s great to hear a product manager who knows their stuff explain the finer details of technology; it’s not so good to hear someone struggle to stay one slide ahead of the audience. Attendees at international versions of TechEd experience this problem today.
The folks who are responsible for the new MEC event face a challenge to recapture the passion, intensity, and commitment of the early conferences. They know that they have to be very different to TechEd, which I understand will continue to feature a small number of Exchange sessions. Another challenge is to achieve balance in the coverage between the technology that people use today (Exchange 2003 through Exchange 2010) and the new features and strengths of the new version of Exchange that’s expected to ship as part of the Office 15 wave. They also have to ensure that unique content is delivered by both Microsoft and external speakers (no reuse of decks from TechEd, for instance) and that the content is at a level that’s unobtainable elsewhere. It’s a tough combination to get right.
I hear that the MEC organizers don’t want to have traditional conference-style sessions where a speaker lectures an essentially passive audience for 75 minutes or so before escaping to the sanctuary of the speaker room. Instead, they’re looking for a much richer set of interactions between everyone who comes to MEC. Transforming expectations of both conference attendees and presenters will be tough, but I think it’s a worthwhile goal.
The folks who filled the gap after Microsoft canned the original MEC won’t be thrilled by this development. Exchange Connections and The Experts Conference have both served the Exchange community well by providing a source of independent knowledge about the product. Microsoft has supported these conferences over the years with sponsorship and speakers and my sources at Microsoft say that they intend to continue this support. However, it is natural to assume that Microsoft will focus much of their attention on their own conference and the suspicion must be that resources will now be directed to MEC.
The potential loss of high-profile Microsoft speakers and other support will create a real headache for the other conferences and might restrict their ability to offer a truly independent view of how to design, deploy, and manage Exchange. We’ll see how the allocation of speakers to conferences proceeds over the next few years. If only because these events don’t feature so much marketing Kool-Aid, I believe that Microsoft will gain value through continued active participation in the independent conferences. SharePoint Connections is a good example of how an independent conference flourishes alongside a very successful Microsoft SharePoint conference. Time will tell in the Exchange space.
We still don’t know the full details about the MEC schedule and the kind of content that will be offered. Microsoft is busily developing plans and will publish information as it becomes available. At that time, you can make your own choice whether to come along to witness the rebirth of MEC. I rather think that I’ll be there…
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