Future of Web Apps, London: an attendee’s view

Last week we had the Future of Web Apps Expo in London, Europe's largest web design conference. We've covered the view of an exhibitor in the last post, now it is time to hand over to our esteemed colleague Rajat Pandit, search engineer in London, England, to give a first-hand report on what he saw and learnt during the two days at FOWA. Over to you, Rajat:

The Future of Web Apps (FOWA) was one of the biggest web events I attended this year. I'll admit I came back to the office after FOWA motivated and enriched by news and knowledge of the latest in the web industry. Th event had separate tracks for business and development catering to the mix of audience. To be honest, sometimes it was difficult to know which track to choose.

Day One

The first day started with an impressive keynote presentation by Kevin Rose on the Future of News Sharing and Discovery. He spoke about the questions that any community-driven website asks: how to give users an enjoyable experience, make their content more relevant, and improve participation in the community. He talked about changes made over a period of time and showed statistically how it improved user engagement.

Kevin Rose by jimjarmo

Kevin's keynote was followed by Edvin Aoki of AOL who offered an interesting comparison of the present financial crisis with the state of web development. He spoke about how customers are different from developers: They don't really care how applications are built. Instead, they want something that lets them do what they set out to do. Developers, on the other hand, are passionate about everything that goes into building a web-app. They are passionate about building a community and get their kicks from increased user participation. He encouraged the audience to go out and write apps which help their users achieve whatever they want to achieve. He urged developers not to worry about monetization and other "after-effects" of a thriving community around a product.

Suw Charman-Anderson's talk about Technology and Psychology shared insights about human interaction on websites. As a social media consultant, Suw's job involves directing companies to implement features that engage and "addict" site users, encouraging them to come back for more. She made intersting comparisons between icanhazcheezburger and dilbert and showed how simple differences like organized randomness and higher frequency of publication of the posts can increase user anticipation, and encourage users to hit refresh in hope to see new content.

Ron Richards from Revision3 talked about bringing Internet television to the masses. Revision3 which produces shows like diggnation. Ron spoke about the evolution of television from a unidirectional source of entertainment to a bi-directional interactive medium.

After the break we had Dan Recordian who spoke about "Blowing up social networks with Open Tech," he talked about the importance of using open standards to open up social networks so that it lowers the entry barrier for new users and using existing services to create content. He talked about importance of data portability and how to make it easy for one website to use content from another website to empower the user to be able to do more to their data rather than have it just locked up in silo.

"Building desktop caliber web applications" was the topic of talk by Francisco Tolmasky of 280north.com. Francisco talked about how applications are now moving to the web and how people would expect the web applications to act like the usual desktop application. He spoke about Cappuccino & Objective-J and its use in his showcase website 280slides.com to show the power of the framework which enables developers to build websites which look and feel exactly like desktop apps.

The day ended with Crick Waters talking about how the web will learn from its mistakes over a period of time and get better.

Afterwards startups were invited to pitch their ideas in a Dragon's Den style Techcrunch Pitch. The Dragons were Jason Calacanis, Brent Hoberman, Ryan Carson and Mike Butcher. There was loads to take away from that as well in terms of the right approach to do a presentation and the importance of showing actual working software rather than fancy slides.

Day 2

Day 2 kicked off with a keynote by Tim Bray from Sun Microsystems who had loads of experience to share with the audience. His talk was very inspiring and motivating and encouraged everyone in the room to go out and solve all the problems (well most of them) waiting to be solved. He talked about development in current times and how people should look into open source solutions rather than re-inventing the wheel and contribute back to the system to make it better and useful for the community. Definitely one of the most inspiring talks of the day.

I decided to stick to the developer track being a developer myself and watched Cris Messina give a talk about oAuth and how together with openId it can be used as building blocks for the open web. He talked about interesting examples from flickr, fire-eagle and other websites who have implemented the oAuth standard and have helped make the web a safer place to share your data.

Brent Taylor of Friendfeed spoke about the importance of relevance of content in the age of social media and how easy it is to have "friends" in your social network who are not your 'real friends' or don't even share the same interests as you. This quickly results in the content generated by the social group being nothing but noise. He talked about how Friend Feed tries to solve this problem by providing relevant activity streams to the user and listen to even the slightest hints from user activity which can give them an insight about user preferences.

Elaine Wherry of meebo.com talked about problems of a different kind of web application - the synchronous kind. The take away for me from the talk was that when you have issues with your web application, do either a quick fix or go for a home run (a proper fix which scales well) but never do anything in between. Every problem she talked about she mentioned how they got things going by doing the first thing that would buy them time and then work on a longer term fix which would scale well.

Next up on the developer track was our very own Christian Heilmann who presented Y!Os and Yahoo's open strategy and how it was easy to build apps on top of Yahoo open API and what the future holds as well. He talked about the interesting possibilities and the amounts of masses developers could distribute their applications to by running them on the Yahoo network and yes he did mention the Rainbow vomiting panda on flickr.

After a quick break and dealing with an information overload, I settled down to listen to Dave Morin of Facebook who talked about Facebook Connect (http://developers.facebook.com/connect.php) which is still in beta but it is really interesting to see how popular social networks are opening up to make the web a better place to be. The connect API will allow developers to build on top of Facebook data and outside the Facebook iframe limitation. Developers will have access to three key social features of Facebook - Identity, Friends and Publish to the Activity stream. This can be quite useful for anyone who wants to build a social website with a theme without having to worry about the basics. Generally this could lower the entry barrier and make it easy for existing Facebook users to use the application. Hopefully they will soon be moving to open standards as well so that they can join the rest of the world which will make them even more awesome.

With the evening quickly coming to an end with loads of interesting talks, the special treat was the Fireside chat with Mark Zuckerberg who was interviewed by Ryan Carson. It was interesting to hear his views about the vision he has for Facebook and its mission to make the web a more open and connected place. He also mentioned that Facebook Connect will be a little delayed though its not clear how long will it be before it comes out of beta, and yes Mark still does fix a bug or two once in a while.

The post wouldn't obviously be complete without a mention of Kathy Sierra's talk about "How to grow and nurture your community" who has years of experience of managing and nurturing the community at JavaRanch and fair few others.

Does it get any better?

When you think it doesnt, it sure does. Diggnation live was surely the coolest thing I had seen in a while, it was amazing to see people queue up out at the expo to see the recording and how Alex and Kevin manage to keep the audience constantly entertained.

All in all the expo was a great experience, it was motivating and inspiring to listen to the industry experts share their view of the future of web and success stories of their startups. A couple of things I took away from the expo:

  • The web will heal itself, browser manufacturers have understood what needs fixing and are addressing the issues - the only trouble is it takes a while.
  • Major social networks understand the responsibility they have towards their users for holding their data and making it more and more easy for users to take their data with them as they move from one website to another.
  • Success of social networks relies of lowering the entry barrier making it easy for the user to get started quicker rather than having to do the same thing over and over.
  • User relevancy and engagement are key to success of websites, signups are no longer important metrics.
  • and last but not the least as a developer or an entrepreneur don't stop trying and don't stop being innovative, take up simpler day to day problems and build applications to solve them, don't worry about funding and monetization upfront, have fun in doing whatever you do.

For those who would like to have a peek into the videos, Carsonified has very kindly made the videos available on their website.

I am already looking forward to coming back next year.

Rajat Pandit
Search Engineer, Yahoo London