It wasn’t that long ago, back in 2012, that Apple decided to remove the Optical, or “DVD,” drive from its laptops. At the time, Apple’s decision seemed foolish and short-sighted; now it seems obvious.
Yesterday O’Reilly Media made what it claims is a similar decision–to completely shut down its events business, citing the toll COVID-19 has taken on families, livelihoods, and the economy. This is not a delay, a deferment, or a change in the schedule. Laura Baldwin, president of the company, explained it in a press release this way:
The virus has had a material impact on O’Reilly’s in-person Events division as well. We previously made the painful decision to cancel our Strata California and Strata London events. Today, we’re sharing the news that we’ve made the very difficult decision to cancel all future O’Reilly in-person conferences and close down this portion of our business. Without understanding when this global health emergency may come to an end, we can’t plan for or execute on a business that will be forever changed as a result of this crisis. With large technology vendors moving their events completely on-line, we believe the stage is set for a new normal moving forward when it comes to in-person events. We also know we are poised to accept that challenge, having already delivered a version of our Strata event on-line to over 4600 participants last week. With over 5000 companies and 2.5 million users on our learning platform, we look forward to innovating and bringing together the technology communities and businesses we serve in new and creative ways.
O’Reilly’s digital transformation
Many readers will remember O’Reilly as the makers of the “Animal” books; I counted 14 on my shelf that had weathered years of pruning, and found three more on a higher shelf later. After introducing its Safari book subscription service in 2001, O’Reilly eliminated sales of all books on its company website in 2017. Today if you want to get a copy of, say, Programming Ruby, you’ll need to purchase it from a different bookseller, likely Amazon, and likely in the Kindle Edition, as the print books are expensive.
This move away from physical books is no surprise. By offering content online, OReilly eliminates the cost of duplicating materials, as well as shipping and handling. Moving to e-delivery increases profit margins, reduces the complexity of the business, and makes it easier to scale. Meanwhile, Tim O’Reilly, the company founder and CEO, has been complaining that as print runs become smaller, manufacturing costs per book skyrocket. There are other advantages, like search results across tens of thousands of titles.
All of this logic applies to the conference business, too.
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Fifteen years ago, when I did not know which programming book to buy, I could simply purchase the O’Reilly one and probably be fine; today there is an infinite amount of conference material available on the internet. Sadly, if I look for a free programming tutorial on the public internet, I will probably be not fine.
As a curator of known good content, O’Reilly has credibility. Moving from an in-person conference “talk” that might scale to 30 people to web-delivered training may become a smart move at some point.
It was Austrian economist Joseph Schumpeter who coined the term “creative destruction” as an engine of capitalism. The productivity gains of new media has been putting people out of work since the printing press. Word processors eliminated typing pools. Blogging and the internet has re-invented traditional media. New companies emerge, while those that refuse to change struggle at best. In technology, many of us are familiar with IBM, DEC, and HP, all of which failed to initially recognize the potential of the personal computer, and chose to invest in mainframes, midrange systems, and personal calculators.
When Amazon took the bold step to create the Kindle, the company was essentially risking its entire existing print business on something new. The best argument I heard at the time was that if Amazon did not do it, someone else would. Introduced in 2007, Kindle e-book sales surpassed physical book sales just four years later.
O’Reilly may be going to a Software as a Service model. Not buying conferences, but renting them, all of them, as many as you want, as often as you want, for a flat monthly fee. That’s certainly working for Netflix.