The company I work at now is sort of involved in the conference/learning area. We put on these big events (they refuse to call them conferences, but that's what they are) where they get some big name speakers to come in and give some keynotes, and then setup smaller sessions for more intimate learning. It's your pretty typical conference model.
I've never quite gotten why people really enjoy conferences - most keynotes tend to be pretty cold and mundane, minus the "local flavor" -- you know, where the speaker will throw in some mention of what group s/he's speaking in front of. The smaller sessions are certainly better, but they often run much more towards the subtle sales pitch -- "here's how you do X, which requires our wonderful product." For the most part, any enjoyment comes out of the networking and being in a different place.
With no segue, I move onto podcasting. I've been on the podcast bandwagon for a while. It's a simple idea and it just works, and now that podcasts are supported in iTunes 4.9, it's going to catch on with the mainstream.
How are these things related? Well ... there's a nice little site called IT Conversations, pretty much run by a guy named Doug Kaye. At that site is a whole bunch of keynotes, panels, meetings, and whatever you can think of that is related to the technology profession. In fact, there's a handful of keynotes by speakers who are speaking or have spoken at my company's conferences. What's so novel about this? The audio is free. You simply subscribe to the podcast (or just download the audio directly) and you get all of these great speeches for free. No travel, no cost, no BS. If you listen to a bit and don't like it, you don't have to feel weird about walking out in the middle; you just delete it.
Still, this is just sort of a blip on the radar screen. IT Conversations doesn't cover the whole gamut of disciplines. Enter Doug Kaye, part 2. He's recently announced plans to start recording and delivering audio from speeches, meetings, and conversations from wherever he can. Cross-discipline, cross-everything.
Basically, he's going to obviate the need to go to a traditional conference.
Sure, some speakers won't allow themselves to be recorded. But, over time, conferences are going to shift to the "unconference model", where the speaker isn't really a speaker, but instead a collaborator in a larger discussion. And when that happens, when that becomes the norm (and the success of Gnomedex makes that seem like it will be sooner rather than later), speakers won't be able to dictate those terms. They'll be invited to attend like everyone else and if they want to keep their standing as a thought-leader, they'll go and go willingly.
Some company is going to realize this and make a killing by starting to exploit these trends before they become commonplace. Rather than selling the keynotes as keynotes, they'll sell them as participants. It'll be "look who's attending" rather than "look who's speaking." Gnomedex already does this, and they sell out every year. But it doesn't seem to happen outside of the technology space.
Soon, you'll have the decision to attend a conference and meet and interact with these big brains, or participate online, or download and listen to it all later on your mp3 player. Someone (Apple) will probably even throw a nice business model on it where you can download speeches and panel discussions for 99 cents. Read a cool book by Malcolm Gladwell -- go download a couple of his keynotes/meetings and hear what he has to say on other topics.
I don't know. It all seems pretty obvious to me, which probably means it'll happen nothing like this.