If you've read this column for the past 2 years, you know that I'm a fan of education and training—and not just formal classroom training. To me, technical education includes almost anything that helps you do your job better. Many of my columns have encouraged individuals to take responsibility for building their careers and ensuring that they get the training and education they need. Other columns have focused on the vendor's responsibility to provide free and easy access to the resources that customers need to build and manage their own training. This week, I highlight an impressive step Oracle is taking to help educate its users—a step I hope Microsoft implements on behalf of its customers.

Oracle Open World (held December 2 through 7) offered free live Web access to most conference sessions. Oracle also offered access to 33 hours of Webcasts, including 18 educational sessions and 12 live chat sessions.

Microsoft does a wonderful job of providing education to its customers. However, I've always been disappointed that Microsoft doesn't distribute the contents of its major shows, including TechEd and the Professional Developers Conference (PDC). Microsoft needs to remember that it's a product company, not a conference company. The goal of Microsoft conferences should be educating as many people as possible, and the simple fact is that only a certain number of users can attend any single conference event. So why not publish all the conference material on the Web for free? Microsoft has been moving in this direction by streaming a small number of sessions from recent conferences, but it's important for Microsoft to mirror Oracle's attempts to make rich conference content fully and freely available for the masses.

Microsoft doesn't care about making money at its conferences; the company's shows usually barely break even. Instead, Microsoft prefers to treat conference attendees to amazingly expensive conference parties, such as renting Universal Studios for a night. Microsoft sees value in the excitement that bringing thousands of people together in one place generates for its products. And the company might worry that if it offered the content for free, people would stop attending the shows. But if Microsoft polled conference attendees, I suspect they'd find that most people who attend the shows would keep coming even if all sessions were freely available through streaming media. Attending in person gives you the valuable added benefit of being able to talk to speakers and network and share problems and solutions with peers. However, free and full distribution of conference content would help Microsoft reach and educate a large number of people who simply can't attend in person. Perhaps Oracle's efforts will spur Microsoft into a game of leap-frog in which each vendor tries to out-do the other by providing customers free Web access to conference content.