Well, I’ve just spent the last 2 days attending the Future Of Web Apps listening to a lot of interesting people talk about their start-ups, their successful companies that came from start ups, venture capital funding, some of the movers and shakers in the California tech industry talking about moving and shaking and a sprinkling of other fascinating people from the likes of Yahoo!, Google and Amazon.
I must confess that I’m not really one of these people who pays much attention to hype and “the next big thing”. I know there’s a whole scene of bloggers who’re hyping lots of start ups, lots of cool web apps out there that “everybody’s using” and while a few years ago I’d have been right in there trying everything out and getting amazingly enthusiastic about everything for 5 minutes then moving on, I’m a bit long in the tooth nowadays and prefer to spend my time doing constructive things rather than jumping on bandwagons. I’ve heard of sites like Techcrunch and such but haven’t really paid any attention to them. Enter John The Cynic! 😉
Having seen first hand what it’s like being in a company that goes from start-up to acquisition and the problems associated with growing from 6 people to 30 it was like a trip down memory lane listening to the stories of companies like Last.fm (which I’ll definitely be checking out – I was impressed by the calibre of the people, how they’ve done what they’ve done and what they’ve actually done). I was reminded of the hard work, the constantly changing direction, the mistakes made, the highs of getting it right and so on. Happy days!
What’s definitely different from when I went through all this is that web software (as opposed to the vision software in the electronics industry I worked in) has to have a community around it using the current (I hate to utter the words) “Web 2.0” strategy of building interest and ultimately making money. What also struck me is that the some of the challenges are one hell of a lot less of a problem than what I worked on. If you want to try out a new feature on the people using your software, the time between idea and going live with it can be a matter of days, or even hours and the associated costs are much lower. Whereas in nasty old monolithic client software you can’t really get away with that and it ends up taking months before you can try something out (what with long release cycles you can’t just drop in things left right and centre). Plus the tools and technologies available today make realising your idea as a web app a technically far easier proposition than making your dreams a reality a few years ago in so far as your plumbing : creating ratio is much more weighted towards creating. These are good times to be a software developer!
Highlights for me included seeing Kevin Rose (the man behind Digg) talk about the development of Digg and some of the problems facing it. It’s hugely popular and having found myself on the front page of Digg last year I can only guess at how many people use the site. It’s an interesting problem growing a site to the point that it has 900,000 active users in the same place and they don’t all get along. Trying to manage the social aspect of a site like that is a tricky one and must be fun to work on!
Another highlight for me was Jonathan Rochelle from Google. He’s one of the men behind Google Docs and Spreadsheets and was one of the founders of the company acquired by Google that did the spreadsheets part. I’ve used Google Spreadsheets right from when it came out and even did a fair bit of wedding planning on it! Being able to have my good lady looking at it at work while I’m at my office doing the same, both making changes at the same time and chatting over the built in IM was very useful indeed.
But the best thing for me was seeing the man who invented PHP, Rasmus Lerdorf up on stage. Nobody who’s worked on web software over the last 10 years could fail to have come across PHP – it made developing web apps orders of magnitude easier than it was before and forms the cornerstone of LAMP – as used by a great many web start-up companies and BigCo’s besides. Yet for such an important person he was – as is often the case with very smart people – extremely humble and pragmatic. He was definitely from the old school and made a very interesting speaker.
What I found most peculiar – aside from people’s over-enthusiasm over announcements about things like OpenID (which for me like is swapping a bag of cats for a can of worms (that’s the long-in-the-tooth cynic in me kicking in again, sorry)) – was some of the people in the audience. Those who sat and blogged everything that was said in real-time did a very impressive job and I doubt my brain would have let me do that. However, there were loads of people sitting there playing games, emailing, looking at CVs and just generally doing anything but listen to the speakers. Makes me wonder why they (or their companies) have spent good money to send them to a conference where they’re not paying attention.
I always find it strange that people think they can listen, email, IM, play Risk and think all at the same time and be “super-productive” – “connected” as it were. It’s simply not possible – you end up doing a half-arsed job of all of the above. It’s a proven fact that merely talking on a mobile phone while driving massively reduces your ability to concentrate, and neither of those activities requires much brain power.
However, I’ve come away from the conference feeling positive and with a few ideas floating around my head that weren’t there before. Don’t expect any world-beating web applications to appear from me any time soon, but it’s certainly expanded my point of view and exposed me to a world I’d paid little attention to. The future of web apps for me has just started.