FOWA London, day 2 – afternoon

February 24, 2007

For the first of the open microphone sessions, Simon Hopkins gave a talk on his company’s approach for creating a virtual office – highly pertinent to those of us with an aversion to over-crowded commuter trains.

Simon’s shopping list includes the following:

  • Common hardware; Mac mini on a UPS running Linux, located at directors’ properties, with mirrored partitions and encrypted partitions for security
  • Laptops have hard drive passwords, and encrypted partitions
  • Broadband is critical; quality of service is important, some ISP’s do not have good QoS which impacts VPN performance
  • Open source software; keep it simple, using only as few tools as possible
  • For VPN’s, use openVPN to create a secure virtual tunnel between services, and for remote access into the company network
  • Subversion for version control; provides a backup facility; their company stores all company documents relating to the business under version control, as well as client correspondence
  • TRAC for project management and bug tracking, tied to version control
  • XRMS for storing client contact details; they use it to record all software products that the client has, and contact history; Simon also mentioned that being a virtual office means you don’t have pieces of paper floating around, so if it isn’t in the CRM system it doesn’t exist
  • Google calendar to store invidividual and company-wide calendars; data is also backed up automatically overnight
  • Voice over IP through Skype, which they use for one-to-one and group meetings; the status indicator gives a “do not disturb” facility
  • A virtual switchboard gives a single consistent number for the client to call; the target number is specified through a web interface … it can be set up to direct IVR-selected numbers for different functions (e.g. “type 1 for support”), or try round-robin forwarding; it ca also e-mail an MP3 message

Simon pointed out that working through a virtual office isn’t for everyone, as some people need structure and a physical location. In addition to greater flexibility and better quality of life, he estimates that working in this way has saved the company between £100K and £250K over the last 10 years.

Bruno Figueiredo then introduced us to JEDI – Just Enough Documentation for Interactions, an approach which proposes using simpler documentation for a simpler team structure. I didn’t get much detail on this as he went through the material rather quickly. He recommended the Interaction Design Association site.

Philip Wilkinson, in the last of the open mic. sessions, covered “Which web apps will succeed and fail in 2007?” and he suggested seven selection criteria:

  1. Don’t roll out another Me 2.0 app (i.e. be different and better). Good: Netvibes, del.icio.us, blinklist, flickr, photobucket
  2. Simplicity is key. Good: twitter, flickr, StumbleUpon, digg, YouTube
  3. Don’t sell technology, sell user empowerment (meebo, SpinVox, buddy.com, Skype, ebay, digg).
  4. Make it work well for just one user first, then their friends will follow (last.fm, del.icio.us, StumbleUpon, wesabe)
  5. Don’t try a play if the big boys can copy you (YouTube, Facebook, digg, Yahoo! Answers)
  6. Can it offer enough to hit the mass market? (YouTube, Pandora, Skype)
  7. Ability to generate a big loyal following (YouTube, 37signals, digg, Facebook, craigslist, Stardoll, last.fm)

Next, Daniel Applequist (Senior Technology Strategist at Vodafone) talked about Vodafone’s work in mobile standards and established through a show of hands that users do want mobile web access. He noted that more than one billion devices worldwide support WAP 2.x / HTML, and then covered some mobile web best practices:

  • design for one web; (thematic consistency – ensure that content provided by accessing a URI yields a thematically coherent experience when accessed from different devices)
  • use web standards (create documents that validate to published formal grammars; use style sheets)
  • stay away from known hazards
  • be cautious of device limitations (do not rely on cookies, embedded objects or script)
  • optimise navigation
  • check graphics and colours
  • keep it small
  • use the network sparingly
  • help and guide user input
  • this of users on the move

In two years, he expects to see mobile applications running in the browser. Opera is doing the most work in the mobile browser (for example, with the Soonr application).

Daniel wrapped up with some more coverage of standards initiatives, including WICD (pronounced “wicked”), which includes integration between XVG, xHTML, CSS, DOM and is the “baseline for rich media web application devleopment on the mobile platform”, the web API’s working group, and the Web Application
Formats working group
. Planet Mobile Web aggregates various blogs about the mobile web.

Rasmus Lerdorf described himself as a “bits and bytes guy making stuff”; what motivates him is solving problems. He originally wrote PHP as an improvement to CGI scripts, after he first saw the Mosaic browser.

On open source, Rasmus addressed why he believes people contribute to open source:

  • Self-interest (Rasmus built a language to solve a problem for himself)
  • Self-expression (programmers want to program and have people see their code)
  • Hormones; oxytocin is released when people relate to each other
  • To improve the world; PHP has enabled non-programmers to write web pages

His gave a definition of Web 2.0 as “systems that harness network effects and get better the more people use them in a way that caters to their own self-interest”, with examples of Wikipedia, Flicrk, Digg, Facebook, Upcoming,org. Amazon, YouTube, Myspace and last.fm.

The two major hurdles that PHP (and non-PHP) web applications face are performance and security; as he covered these in more detail in the Thursday workshop I’ll blog about that in a separate post.

The remaining sessions in the afternoon included an announcement by Tariq Krim that Netvibes would be introducing a Universal Widget API, which would allow you to build a Netvibes widget and then make available on every widget platform (e.g. including Google). A preview will be available very shortly on the Netvibes Developer Network.

Richard Moross and Stefan Magdalinski managed to give an entertaining and interesting talk about their printing business, Moo.com. They wanted to build a remarkable company, that is one that people would talk about. As Richard put it, it’s the idea that gets you noticed – “everything that Moo does is in the details”.

Finally, Brice Le Blevennec took us through the numerous features available in ContactOffice.com. The company was founded in 1999 and has been profitable since 2003. Their application is built on Java, and Brice talked about migrating from their existing architecture to include more client-side behaviour. For the updated version they
have adopted the Google Web Toolkit, which allows you to generate client Javascript from strongly-typed Java source code.

There were a few sessions that stood out for me in the afternoon: Moo.com are clearly passionate about what they do, and this shows in their attention to detail; I enjoyed seeing Rasmus get technical on performance and security, and Philip Wilkinson’s open mic. session was a useful survey of the current web app. landscape.

Update: The talks are now available as MP3 and/or PDF on the site.


FOWA London, day 2 – morning session

February 23, 2007

Mark Anders (Adobe) – Enabling Next Generation Web Apps In and Beyond the Browser

Wednesday’s sessions started with Mark Anders, Senior Principal Scientist at Adobe. Mark previously led the ASP.NET development at Microsoft from 1998 and then left to join Macromedia because he was fascinated by Flash. He showed a couple of example Flash applications: Spacializer, and the Intelligent Finance mortgage calculator.

He then went on to talk about Flex, which is a “developer-friendly way to create Flash applications with code” (instead of a time line editor). Architecturally Flex lives somewhere between HTML/CSS and Flash. He gave a demo which retrieved Flickr photos using the free Eclipse-based IDE Flex Builder.

Mark then brought on Faizan Buzdar, CEO of Scrybe (blog), who demonstrated the significant performance improvements achieved in ActionScript 3; for example, encrypting 256KB of text takes 12 seconds in ActionScript 2, but only 1 second in version 3; there were also improvements demonstrated in graphical rendering and retrieving e-mail data for auto-completion in a contacts application. Mark also mentioned that Adobe will be contributing the source code for the ActionScript Virtual Machine to Mozilla’s Tamarin project.

Mark finished by covering Apollo, which allows you to build applications with online and offline/local (e.g. file/clipboard access, background processing, multiple window support) characteristics. Example Apollo apps are: Maptacular, and the Ebay desktop installer.

Chris Wilson (Microsoft) – The Past, Present and Future of the Browser

Chris is Platform Architect for Internet Explorer and has worked on versions 2 through to 7.

Chris said that he is often asked what Microsoft has been doing since 2001 (when IE6 was released), and noted that at the time although the platform existed for rich web applications, there was little actual adoption; it was also hard to build these applications – Outlook Web Access was Microsoft’s biggest application; and the dot com bubble had burst. Hacking also became much more lucrative, and so Microsoft became heavily focused on improving security through Windows XP Service Pack 2. (Microsoft did actually ship another browser version, in SP2, but it was security-focused.) Then in 2005 Ajax was given a name (most applications still run on IE6), and RSS was gaining increased exposure.

He then went on to extol the virtues of IE7, and emphasised that Microsoft has become very standards-focused (the IE team’s mantra is apparently “Don’t break the web!”).

In response to a common question, he said that it’s technically not possible to have exact multiple IE versions side-by-side on a single Windows install (they aren’t designed to work that way – they share settings .. the registry etc.). However, he mentioned that in November Microsoft released a free Virtual PC image that contains Windows XP SP2 and IE6 (VPC is already free – there is more information on his blog).

He ended the talk by introducing a couple of developers who had produced a very cool screen saver (Twingly), which shows the frequency of blog posts around the world.

Khoi Vinh from Nytimes.com (blog) observed that the internet allows for instantaneous publishing, but doesn’t yet allow for instantaneous design, so features with involved customised layouts (5th anniversary of September 11th, the U.S. elections) require long lead times.

Nytimes.com is changing from a platform for the delivery of news, to a platform for news-centric interactivity. They are building discrete applications to supplement the news experience (MyTimes, TimesFile, TimesTopics, TimesReader); also, content is evolving into functionality (e.g. inline audio and video), and they are including sharing tools for one-click access to Digg, Newsvine, etc. as well as blogger-friendly permalinks which stay available for much longer in front of the “paywall”.

Some principles for design:

  • There is no such thing as free software (additional code, testing, support, “feature noise” that user may be forced to tune out)
  • The cost of expression – in digital media users bear at least half the cost of expression
  • Thinking of an application as a physical machine emphasises the cost of functionality
  • Every feature should have multiple reasons for its existence
  • Options are obstructions – having a preferences centre suggests that there were issues that you couldn’t resolve in the main interface
  • Offend experts, not beginners – experts are less easily offended; most users are beginner/intermediate; most features are for experts
  • Provide navigation within reason – users don’t have to navigate everywhere from everywhere; Amazon doesn’t display all product categories by default
  • Undertake user testing, not executive testing; this should be usability testing, not acceptance testing
  • Writing is interface design – labels have a big impact
  • Let a thing be what it is – tabs are tabs, buttons are buttons, links are links
  • Design with a maximum of elegance through a minimum of ornamentation
  • Use a grid

Simon Willison (blog) gave a detailed and enthusiastic talk on “The Future of OpenID”, which has been gaining widespread support recently (both Digg and Netvibes confirmed that they will be supporting it during the conference).

Web authentication is problematic – too many user names, too many passwords; the temptation to re-use passwords across accounts. Can you remember the account name you used to sign up? Do you still have access to the e-mail address you originally specified?

Open ID gives you single sign-on without a single point of control. Your identity is a URL (which gives you a global unique identifier), and you can choose who you want to manage your identity. Simon’s example OpenID is hosted at LiveJournal (who invented OpenID) – when he logs in to Zoomr (and isn’t yet authenticated by LiveJournal) he will be redirected to LiveJournal to enter his password, and then back to Zoomr. OpenID supports exchange of attributes (e.g. full name, e-mail address) between OpenID-enabled sites using personas.

Decentralisation comes from specifying the URI assigned by your OpenID provider, in the page that you actually want to use as your identity (described in detail in the authentication specification). This indirection gives you flexibility to change providers. Simon has also come up with a way of enabling us to use our Yahoo! accounts to log in to sites that support OpenID.

From the perspective of a site owner, it makes sense to support OpenID since it avoids users having to create yet another account.

Simon gave some example uses for OpenID: pre-approved accounts/social white lists (e.g. for group web sites), corporate sign-on, micro-formats (your OpenID can embed contact details). He also proposed potential workarounds/solutions for some of the issues facing OpenID: the main issue is phishing, where your stolen identity could be used to log on to multiple sites; he proposes forcing the user to log on to idproxy.net (for example) by typing the address into the browser, or using a bookmark, rather than providing a potentially bogus link; you can also use multiple OpenID’s to spread your risk, which will help to mitigate privacy concerns with having a single identity across multiple sites (you still reduce your overall number of accounts).

To guard against your OpenID provider being unavailable for any reason, you can give your users the option to create a local acount or log in using an OpenID (possibly supporting multiple OpenID’s against a single account).

Simon finished by mentioning freeyourid.com, which takes the pain out of signing up for OpenID, and challenged the audience to think new features in your web application that OpenID enables.

Unfortunately I missed the first half or so of Jonathan Rochelle’s talk on how Google Docs & Spreadsheets were built, as I was back late from the panel discussion (covered by Read/Write web).


On Mike Arrington’s call to dissolve the BBC

February 23, 2007

One of the stories that seems to be getting coverage from FOWA is Mike Arrington’s contention that the BBC should be dissolved.

He did say that, but he followed it with the comment that by launching an online social networking the publicly funded BBC is going to create some problems for at least four or five startups working in that area.


Thoughts on FOWA London 2007

February 23, 2007

It’s been a packed few days at the Future of Web Apps London conference, and yesterday’s workshop.

Ryan, Gillian and their team have done a great job of creating a buzz around the event and succeeded in getting some excellent speakers. Having the opportunity to discuss PHP with Rasmus Lerdorf at the workshop session yesterday was one of the highlights for me.

I got to meet some interesting and very personable people, and it struck me that there are plenty of talented individuals in the UK getting out there and building companies with innovative products.

The panel debate on day 2 focused on startup culture in Europe versus the U.S., and one of the conclusions was that we need to stop obsessing about Silicon Valley and get on and do it here. Events like this that bring like-minded people together are one of the elements of that culture.

When I joined Chordiant‘s UK consultancy team in 1999 I remember thinking that the company was building a team of exceptional people who were capable of achieving great things (I’ll blog about my experiences at Chordiant another time), and this was reflected in the quality of the work we did. I was reminded of that feeling at the FOWA, and I believe it is important that like-minded people have the ability to work closely together, sharing ideas and resources,
as it really does help to drive everyone forward. Gareth took the lead on this during the FOWA debate by flagging up that he had spare office capacity, with accounting and sysadmin support, and I hope that others in a similar position will follow his lead.

I’ll blog in more detail in the next day or so about the day 2 conference sessions, and the workshops.


Future of Web Apps London, Day 1

February 21, 2007

The people at Carson Systems lined up an impressive list of speakers for the first day of FOWA, including:

as well as some “Sponsor Spotlight” 10-minute sessions from BT (who will be releasing BTContact in March), QuotationsBook and soocial.com.

I enjoyed Mike’s presentation on advice for startups, and am going to invest some time investigating Adobe Apollo which allows you to build web apps that work online and offline; apparently Adobe will then provide marketing assistance for your app.

Tara’s talk covering the fostering of online communities and was full of useful content. Common themes in community sites included:

  • A sense of fun
  • Keeping the dialogue going with your users
  • “Wouldn’t it be awesome …” development
  • Simple platforms for building on (Yahoo! Maps has a more feature-rich interface but according to ProgrammableWeb 51% of developers use Google Maps for mashups versus 4% for Yahoo! maps)
  • Compelling founder stories (Matt Mullenweg created WordPress when he was 18 years old); and
  • Community rewards

Werner Vogels’ theme was “Web Scale Computing: Compete on Ideas, Not Resources”. This covered Amazon’s S3, EC2 and SQS web services, which allow you to use resources on demand for your business rather than building your own infrastructure. Werner talked about how Gigavox has used S3 and SQS to incorporate advertising into MP3 podcasts. As another example, at the end of 2006 Smugmug were spending $40K per month on infrastructure to store 120M photos; they expect to save $2M in 2007 on infrastructure costs, and are now selling surplus hardware on Ebay.

Kevin Rose talked about how you get people to interact with your site; why do they care? He also talked about some of the things Digg will be doing to enhance the site, and announced future support for OpenID.

I’m looking forward to Day 2.


Restart

February 19, 2007

As you can see, I’ve written just the one post since Christmas. This is partly because I’ve been spending more time on a personal PHP project, but also because I’ve been figuring out what themes to focus on.

I’m going to be at the Future of Web Apps conference tomorrow, so I plan to get started again by covering that.