The Days of Tech Swag Are Gone

It was one of those weird situations when I could have been myself but I chose to pretend I was someone else. Jesse's boss had gotten passes to JavaOne, last week's annual Java-related industry orgy, and Jesse handed off his badge to me, taking some other guy's badge for himself. Fact is, I could have been Annalee -- I mean, I could have gotten a press pass, but I was feeling lazy.

So I wandered around the VIP floor show at JavaOne, masquerading as Jesse, a software developer. Given that nobody would know I was a tech journalist who might write about the products and services on display, I decided to revert to a more primitive form of life and roam the booths leeching swag. The first thing I noticed was that none of the big companies, like Sun (a sponsor of JavaOne), Intel, Borland, and Macromedia, gave out any cool free things at all. Shouldn't the richest companies give out the most swag? The second thing I discovered was that nobody had heard the word "swag" before -- a clear sign that the practice of handing out free crap to geeks is on the wane.

At the RSA booth I got one of the turbogeeks to lecture me on ClearTrust, RSA's bitchin' new Web security product. Then I asked the guy next to their stack of T-shirts for some swag. "What's swag?" he asked, puzzled. "These!" I said, pointing to the free shirts. "Oh, I just call that free stuff," he replied, getting me a size medium. Note to JavaOne exhibitors: If you want non-large-size tech journalists posing as developers to write about you, stock mediums. And don't be dicks.

The dicks were all at the Sybase booth, where they were giving away tie-dyed men's underwear emblazoned with the Sybase logo. I approached them on full swag alert. First I tried to talk about the glories of portable databases to a guy staring at a console. He ignored me, so I cut to the swag. "What's this thing you're giving away?" I asked, pointing at the stack of as-yet-unidentifiable pieces of cloth. He glared at me, then pointed at his legs. "Um, napkins?" I guessed. He spat out the word "shorts," never once offering to discuss whatever the hell it was Sybase was pimping at the show besides underwear. Finally another guy -- who also neglected to pitch Sybase's products -- practically threw a pair of underwear at me, perhaps casting a spell to ward off this strange female invader in their world of boxer shorts. Then there were the weird French guys from an unknown company who were giving away green stuffed horse heads sewn onto long orange sticks. Later I ran into an untethered P.R. flak who tried to pawn off one of HP's laser pens as his own company's free thingamabob.

Jesse's colleague Val noted that the swag scene at this year's JavaOne wasn't as good as at last year's. "Plus, nobody is putting on any shows or anything," she said, shrugging. We agreed it was all about the tech bust -- the swag economy is in the toilet.

But at least one company was making an effort to be crass and commercial in the swaggiest way possible. Iona, master of middleware, had this sort of teenage-porn-fantasy video-game theme on its signage and T-shirts. Really, it was the purest example of swagosity, because the T-shirts of huge-breasted women in chain mail and porn stars hanging in spider webs had absolutely nothing to do with Iona's products at all. I think the fantasy-game idea had some kind of tie-in to a contest it was running at JavaOne, but the point is that the link to knights with swords and chicks with tits was utterly tenuous.

"What does the naked chick in the spider web have to do with your product?" I asked one of Iona's marketing droids. With a hint of that keenly felt irony you sometimes see among the utterly sold-out, he replied, "She'll be here tomorrow." I grinned. "Oh yeah? Can I get her free with my T-shirt?" He grinned back. "You'll have to share her with me."

My swag spoils were pretty good: three T-shirts, boxer shorts, a squeezy ball, two bouncy balls, a light-up pen, a thermos mug, a canvas bag, and some stationery. But JavaOne made it clear that the glitz is truly gone from the tech biz. Looked at from a marketing perspective, geeks who deal with Java are no more special or exciting than people who sell rugs. I'm sure Carpeteria gives out squeezy balls once a year too.

Annalee Newitz (realitycheck@techsploitation.com) is a surly media nerd whose swag will never measure up to Sean Captain's. Her column also appears in Metro, Silicon Valley's weekly newspaper.

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