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Wi-Fi Changes Meeting Dynamics

If you're a lousy conference speaker, don't be surprised if all you see of audiences in the future is their bowed heads, says WLAN consultant and frequent conference speaker Alan Reiter. And no, they won't be praying.

Bored audiences will tune you out and check e-mail on their laptops or handhelds using the room's Wi-Fi Internet access network, Reiter warns. "Or possibly send instant messages about what a rotten speaker you are."

More and more hotels and conference facilities are installing 802.11-based WLANs, he points out, but few have thought yet about how these networks will impact speakers and audiences at conferences.

"Like it or not, the dynamics of holding conferences will change," Reiter says. "And in many cases, there is nothing a conference organizer can do to stop it. But they can try to understand it and leverage it."

This, perhaps ironically, is the nut of a presentation that Reiter, president of Chevy Chase MD-based Wireless Internet & Mobile Computing, will make at next week's 802.11 Planet Conference & Expo in Philadelphia PA.

Given that this is a conference at which a significant number of attendees will show up with Wi-Fi-enabled laptops or PDAs, it's going to be an interesting test case of Reiter's theories.

The impact of conference room Wi-Fi networks is already being felt, Reiter says. High-tech journalists are starting to use them to report on conference speakers and immediately post their reports online -- sometimes even before the speaker has finished talking.

Reiter has had this happen to him as a speaker a couple of times -- luckily the reviews were good, he says.

He has also done it himself. A participant at one recent WLAN conference Reiter attended in Hong Kong said he wouldn't have to write a report of his own. He could just copy Reiter's report from his blog.

"He was only being semi-facetious," Reiter says.

At another conference, Reiter wrote in his blog about a presentation by Duncan Davidson, CEO of Skypilot Network, a Belmont, CA-based WISP.

Davidson read the Web log right after his talk ended and fired off an e-mail to Reiter pointing out an error. Reiter received it on his pager during the next session, instantly corrected his report and posted the correction using the conference room's Wi-Fi connection.

When another journalist made a mistake about a speaker's presentation and posted it during the conference session, the speaker saw the posting after he sat down, while the session continued. Later he used the question and answer period to publicly draw attention to the error.

Reiter's favorite anecdote, though, revolves around a talk by Joe Nacchio, chairman and CEO of Denver-based Qwest Communications International at Esther Dyson's PC Forum conference earlier this year.

Nacchio was whining about how difficult it has become for telecom companies like his to make a go of it. Popular high-tech journalists Dan Gillmor, technology columnist at the San Jose Mercury News, and Doc Searles, senior editor for Linux Journal were reporting on the talk in their own blogs as it progressed.

A friend read what they had written and fired off an e-mail to them which included links to a report showing how Nacchio made millions of dollars on stock transactions involving telecom companies. Gillmor and Searles posted the links as Nacchio continued to speak.

Steven Levy, a senior editor and columnist at Newsweek, later reported that the audience noticeably cooled to Nacchio as the talk wore on. It's not clear if this was because of the Searles/Gillmor postings, Reiter admits. "But there were a lot of people at that conference with Wi-Fi."

Reiter sums it up this way: "When you have Wi-Fi, plus journalists, plus Web logs, it can be very powerful. It's going to change the dynamics of communications."

The way journalists are using Wi-Fi conference room connections certainly presents a challenge to speakers, but the bigger challenge will be holding the attention of audiences.

If Wi-Fi is "death to poor speakers," as Reiter says, smart speakers will learn to leverage it.

He is already starting to include hyperlinks in his presentation slides pointing to the pages of companies he cites in his talks, as well as his own site. Speakers could also post additional notes to slides at a Web site and refer the audience to them, he suggests. At past conferences, Reiter has illustrated his remarks by using the room's Wi-Fi connection to log on to the iFilm site and play streaming video versions of AT&T Wireless's humorous Mlife commercials from the Super Bowl.

Cleverform Ltd., a UK-based Web software company, has a product Reiter thinks speakers could use to conduct quick online polls with audience members.

Conference organizers could use the same technology to do speaker evaluations, he suggests, in some cases replacing clumsy and expensive dedicated radio-based polling systems used at many conferences.

Moderators could also take questions or comments from audience members by e-mail or have them posted at a Web page. "Some people don't like to get up and ask questions," Reiter notes. "This would make it easier for them."

The questions and comments could be projected on a big screen, but it would be imperative for the moderator to review them first. Some comments could be scurrilous, actionable or just plain hurtful, he points out.

Some of the same techniques could be used in private corporate meetings, Reiter notes. The motivation would be slightly different, though. Participants in private meetings don't have much option but to pay attention.

"There is a difference in being an employee and being an attendee," he points out. "If the boss says, 'Put it [the laptop] down or you're fired,' that kind of catches your attention."

Using wireless networks to increase productivity and interaction at office meetings -- such as software from Colligo Networks of Vancouver designed to facilitate wirelessly participation in meetings -- is probably another whole conference presentation... and another 802.11 Planet column.