What, No Swag?

Swag (free stuff) is traditionally a big part of any developer conference, and historically none more so than at Google I/O. But this year they opted out of that tradition – there was no big technology giveaway for attendees. Why did they do that and what does it mean for other developer events and developer programs?

In the past several years, Google I/O has arguably had the biggest tech giveaways of any developer conference. They have handed out various Nexus phones and tablets, a Chromebook Pixel, smart watches, Google Glasses and much more. In the day-one heat in Mountain View, I joined the 7,000 plus crowd and speculated on what would it be this year. Then, when it became obvious nothing was coming, I joined the initial shock and then discussion about why not.

It’s expensive to attend a major developer conference: hundreds if not thousands of dollars for a ticket and ridiculously expensive motels (at least if the event is in the South Bay area). Add to that your travel costs and a number of days away from the office (whatever that means for you) and it comes to maybe a $5,000 investment. So, who goes to I/O? Perhaps not surprisingly, the answer is a mix of people. Developers of course, but also journalists, bloggers, Google partners and vendors, and Googlers themselves who came from all over the world.

T-shirts were among the swag given out to Google I/O attendees this year.

T-shirts were among the swag given out to Google I/O attendees. But there was no hardware. (Image courtesy of Google.)

A clue as to why Google didn’t have a big shiny hardware giveaway this year might be found at another major developer conference, Microsoft Build. Microsoft also has a legacy of big tech giveaways at its showcase developer conference (including Surface Pro devices and an Xbox One in prior years), but this year they too declined to distribute significant swag. However, unlike Google, they told attendees in advance what to expect, with a reasonably prominent message on the sign-up page:

‘This year we will forgo hardware in favor of a deeper technical experience for developers.’

Developers were not deterred from attending Build, and the event this year reportedly sold out in one minute.

And there you have it. In 2016 Google and Microsoft took back control of their conferences and tried to hand them back to developers. We can debate how successful each were in achieving this, but time and time again when we conduct surveys or talk to developers about what’s important to them about a developer program the same answers come back – great support, clear documentation, code samples, and so on. That said, in the most recent Catchy survey more than three quarters of respondents noted they expect swag when attending a conference and well over half said there should be a host/sponsor device or hardware giveaway at the show.

In 2016 both Google and Microsoft took steps to prevent the swag giveaway being such a big reason to attend their showpiece events. Instead, they tried to move the emphasis to stuff that really matters to genuine developers. Interestingly, Facebook went the other way at its F8 event giving away a Samsung Gear VR headset and a Galaxy S6, worth around $700 combined. They adopted the more traditional approach of ‘here take this and work on it, it’s important’.

As the developer conference season draws to a close it’s just Apple to go. They have traditionally not been in the hardware giveaway camp, relying on branded clothing and occasional gift cards. It will be interesting to see what they do this year, and how Microsoft and Google respond to the comments from the developer community in their showcase events in 2017.


Featured image courtesy of Antoine Naaman. 

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