The Future of Web Apps? Bad Wifi, Booth Mobbing, Geo and Lots of Schwag

You're stuck in a room on the first floor of a venue with no natural light, people keep expressing surprise that you're there, there's a bizarre voucher system operating for getting a cup of coffee and the free public wifi is holding up far better than the venue's net connectivity which is buckling under the strain of multiple laptops, iPhones and Androids.

It can only be a tech conference; this one is in London and it's called FOWA, or the Future of Web Applications to give it its full name and it was held in the rather grand sounding Kensington and Chelsea Town Hall, near High Street Kensington tube station.

There's a booth with some strangely comfortable sofas and chairs, a purple orchid, loads of purple swag, "geoballs" and a free wifi point called yahooligans. Sitting cozily between the PayPal and Vodaphone booths, this has been the home of the Yahoo! Developer Network and Yahoo! Geo Technologies teams for the last 48 hours.

I presented on both days as part of the University Sessions track. On Thursday I talked about ""Place not Space; Geo without Maps""; which was somewhat incorrect given that it featured a guest appearance by Google Earth. Using Yahoo! Placemaker, I showed how you could extract places from web content and sanitise the content with YQL. Whilst it would be great if all the web used Yahoo! web services, we need to work with the rest of the world, so I showed how you could use the long/lat metadata returned by Placemaker to drive Google Earth.

Then on Friday I talked about how "Geocoding and Geoparsing are Easy"; I may have been somewhat economic with the truth. Geocoding isn't easy and Geoparsing is even less so. This talk showed some of the pitfalls that frustrate us and how we need to model geography in real and colloquial terms and not simply structured and formal terms. Or to put it another way "we can make the internet work better by making it understand how we speak in the real world".

Both sessions were really well attended, with people standing at the back during the Friday talk, which is a great thing for a speaker to see. FOWA attendees are a very geo-savvy crowd who asked lots of intelligent, challenging and pretty direct questions. There's nothing I like more than an audience that "gets" a topic.

Back at the booth we were gently but firmly mobbed during break sessions which was pleasantly surprising, given that we were on the first floor. An entirely non-statistical review of the questions we came across on the booth showed three main trends:

  • Tell me about YQL and YUI - they're really cool
  • Tell me more about this "geo" stuff
  • Is the wifi really this bad?

As an industry we thrive on a strange barter system based around the acquisition and donation of items of branded schwag. We continued this fine tradition with loads of "geoballs" and some much prized YDN screwdrivers. We also thrive on vast amounts of caffeine so it seemed only fair to run a competition with the prize of a coffee machine which resembles the robots that were used in the Fiat "designed by humans, built by machines" ad campaign. To win, all you had to do was guess the number of unique users that hit the Yahoo! UK network on Tuesday September 1st 2009.

Answers ranged from the hugely optimistic "a lot", to some very precise, yet very wrong, figures, ranging from 20 thousand all the way up to an insane 2.3 billion. The real answer was 24,452,863 users and we were able to unite Raymond Tamblyn of Visa Worldwide with the coffee machine for his answer of 23 million.

And then after 2 days of no natural light, slightly crazed from too much caffeine and throats croaking from too much talking, the booth was dismantled, the purple orchid found a home and we stepped back into the fading daylight and hip shopping area of High Street Kensington and headed home for the weekend and to an internet connection that works.

Lousy wifi seems to be the hallmark of a great web event. Oh the irony.

Photo credits: vicchi on Flickr.

Gary Gale

Director of Engineering, Yahoo! Geo Technologies