We're looking into the options for publishing the proceedings for SenSys 2009 (which I'm co-chairing with Jie Liu). Sensys is an ACM conference and traditionally has had a printed proceedings. I'm interested in what people think about an all-electronic (that is, online) proceedings, with no printed copies or CD-ROMs. The idea would be to put the PDFs on the conference website and ensure that they are archived by the ACM Digital Library. (Assuming, of course, that ACM would allow this -- I haven't looked into their policies.)
SenSys is an ACM conference, and has traditionally had printed proceedings. As anyone who has been a conference organizer knows, this can often be a cumbersome and slow process, requiring many weeks of lead time from the publisher, and quite a lot of work on the part of the authors and the publications chair. This also shortens the time available for paper shepherding. Going the traditional route also incurs a nontrivial cost which is passed down to every conference attendee, whether they want the printed book or not. Finally, there is an environmental cost to all those dead trees that never get read, and to physically ship out the proceedings to all of the SIG members.
Personally, I don't have a need for printed proceedings. I get my papers online, through Google or the ACM DL. I realize there are still plenty of people who want to hold a physical paper in their hands, which is what printers are for -- indeed, if we put the PDFs online a week or so before the conference, anyone who wants to flip through the papers physically could print them out themselves and bring them to the conference. Printed proceedings seem to me to be a holdover from the time when scientific literature was chiefly distributed through printed books and journals archived in libraries. That is not the reality today. Many journals have now gone all-electronic, so it seems odd to me that a conference could not go the same route.
At the same time, I realize there are some (real or perceived) downsides to electronic-only proceedings. There is a question about whether it really constitutes a "publication," and I have heard that some institutions in Europe and Asia expect a printed proceedings in order for a paper to "count." (I have no hard evidence of this so would like to learn more.) The copyright issue becomes a little sticky, but I think that it would work fine to allow authors to retain copyright in their papers but require that they release them under a Creative Commons license permitting the conference organizers, and ACM, to distribute them. Finally, do electronic-only proceedings diminish the gravitas of a paper being accepted into a major venue? I would hope that those bulky yellow-spined books alone do not impart validity to a conference paper, but you never know.
So, I'm curious to know what others think about going all electronic.