FOWA London, day 2 – afternoon

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.

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