Canonical has just announced that the Ubuntu Developer Summit will no longer be face to face and every six months. Instead it will be entirely online and virtual, using Google Hangouts. (Here is the announcement.)
On the surface, this seems like a good idea: It's cheaper monetarily, it appears to open things up to people who are unable to travel, and it makes it easier to make complete records.
However, I think it's a bad idea, for several interrelated reasons.
Some decision making needs face-time to happen. For whatever reasons, internet-only communication is not enough for a good enough "meeting of the minds" for sticky or subtle engineering and design decisionmaking.
The IETF, who probably have the longest history of any organization ever of online internet-enabled collaboration, worked out long ago that while day to day collaboration can be done over email and text chat, some technical decison-making HAS to be done face to face. Thus, the IETF meets every 6 months.
Likewise, at the old MySQL AB, even though the entire company was famously completely distributed, we also figured out that despite being on email and IRC with each other every day, we had to meet ever 6 months, for face-time decision making. Thus, the whole company met every year, and then each team or group met together at least one other time over the year.
And then, most anyone who actually does a working attendance (as opposed to just helicoptering in to give an executive keynote, or being whisked off to a secured conference room to have a private upper executive meeting) at a technical conference knows, most of the ACTUAL work at a conference or at a technical design summit happens in the hallways, over dinner, in serendipitious meetings, in people introducing people to each other, and in impromptu engineering meetings.
These are the reasons that the OpenStack community meets together every 6 months, for our own design summit. The keynotes, the vendor booths with their signboards and handouts, the standard podium-and-rows-of-seats are, at best, a sideshow, from where the real work is getting done, the reason for the summit: the circles (not rows) of seats for the design summit meetings, and for the hallways, informal dinners, and social mixers, where all the individual meetings and necessary social processing happens.
I started to make a list of all the times I personally was part of such unstructured un-"planned" events at conferences that had significant impact, and the list grew too long, so I cut it from this post.
Email and IRC and etherpad are awesome tools, and I commend Ubuntu, as well as most other large collaborative open source projects, such as OpenStack, for using them. Likewise, Google Hangouts seem to be pretty awesome, and I'm glad that Canonical is trying them.
However, they do not replace face to face large group meetings, and cannot solve the problems that such gatherings can.
I wish Canonical and Ubuntu well, but this is a mistake that I hope does not damage them too much. /p