Jim Duffy: Be wary of forums and their public relations flackery

When in doubt, start a forum.

That’s what vendors and service providers do when they’re not satisfied with the amount – or lack thereof – of positive press generated to promote their business, market or technology objectives. Under the guise of “educating the industry,” they band their PR and marketing people together to form specialized PR agencies, in effect, to crank out more press releases, white papers, technical bulletins and news alerts on the “progress” of their “work.”

The aim is to persuade, influence or finesse stiffs like me to write glowing prose on the virtues of their market, technology or standards work. Forums put their most-effective and media-savvy speakers in front of the press in an attempt to paint a portrait of the forum working for the good of the common consumer.

Indeed, the latest such endeavor, the Metro Ethernet Forum, has as its chair Ron Young, co-founder and chief marketing officer at metro Ethernet service provider Yipes Communications Inc. Anyone who’s heard Young speak will attest that he’s a tireless pontificator on the moral goodness of metro Ethernet. Some might say tiresome, but everyone will agree on tireless. And effective – few can get you jacked up higher than Reverend Ron.

In my 15 years as a high-tech journalist, I’ve seen more forums come and go than stay. Anyone remember the Network Interoperability Alliance, the laughable club formed by IBM, Bay Networks and 3Com to do little else than snipe at common enemy Cisco?

News flash: IBM sold its networking business to Cisco, Bay no longer exists, and soon 3Com may not either.

You don’t hear much from the ATM Forum these days, do you?

It’s interesting to note that the Metro Ethernet Forum was announced at a time when service providers aren’t buying anything, just sticking to their tried-and-true SONET infrastructures. It also comes at a time when many of the optical Ethernet start-ups are now – gasp! – announcing support for SONET in their products. Which direction is the wind blowing the money this week?

The forum concept is a thinly veiled public relations campaign to promote vendor ambitions and expose “non-member” competitors, rather than perform any meaningful or useful service. Forums aren’t education, they’re promotion; best ingested with a huge grain of salt.