Smartphones and freebies spell success for Google I/O

Google I/O 2011 sold out in record time as many expect a free tablet, but there's more to this conference for developers

Tickets for the Google I/O 2011 developer's conference went on sale this week. Ever since the show was launched in 2008, it has always been popular. In 2009, tickets sold out in 90 days. In 2010 they cleared out in just 50 days. But this year's rush was unprecedented; according to Google vice president of engineering Vic Gundotra, all 5,000 seats at Google I/O 2011 were claimed in just under an hour.

How times have changed! Apple's Worldwide Developers Conference (WWDC) has long been one of the hotter developer tickets around, but last year's 5,200 seats sold out in eight days, not mere minutes. Meanwhile, Microsoft's Professional Developers Conference (PDC) has faded somewhat as a "destination event" -- where previous years saw it occupying the Los Angeles Convention Center, this year's show was hosted at the company's Redmond campus, with in-person attendance capped at 1,000.

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But does the flurry of activity around Google I/O really signal a sea change among developers? Are Google platforms and technologies -- including Chrome, Android, App Engine, and Google Web Toolkit (GWT), among others -- really becoming the preferred targets for today's programmers? Maybe and maybe not. For a more accurate analysis of the app dev market, you'd be better off evaluating developer conferences based on their content, rather than their ticket sales.

It's raining smartphones
There's one obvious explanation for Google I/O's rapid ticket turnover: the freebies. At most conferences, attendees can expect to walk away with tote bags, water bottles, coffee mugs, T-shirts, and maybe a few tins of developer-themed caffeinated breath mints. But Google's conference does giveaways with unprecedented style.

At the 2009 show, Google gave away a Google Ion, an unlocked developer version of the HTC Magic Android handset, to every attendee. The following year, it outdid itself. Ticket holders were given the option to receive either a Nexus One or a Motorola Droid by mail in advance of the show so that every attendee would have a working Android handset available from the moment the conference started. Google didn't stop there; at the opening keynote, it gave every attendee an HTC Evo 4G, and many developers walked away from the show with not one, but two free smartphones.

Microsoft was obviously inspired by Google's largesse because it gave away a free handset running Windows Phone 7 to every attendee of PDC 2010. On the surface this makes sense. Much like Android in 2009, Windows Phone 7 is still an unfamiliar platform to most coders, so seeding free handsets into the community might be a good way to jump-start an independent developer ecosystem. But because of PDC's low attendance cap, Microsoft put only one-tenth as many phones into developers' hands as Google did at Google I/O 2010. Were they really meant as developer tools or were they just free conference swag?

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