Future of Web Apps, Miami, 2009

Back last semester, I decided to pony up the resources to travel to Miami to attend the Future of Web Apps conference run by Ryan Carson’s Carsonified.  The ticket cost $200 for just the conference day (the workshop day was on the prior day but cost quite a bit).  It ended up that I had to skip two classes in order to arrive on Monday, get settled in, and make it in time the next morning on Tuesday for the lectures to begin.

So I decided to book a night at South Beach hostel, having learned from my Australia trip never to stay in a hotel if I’m by myself or with a buddy.  It cost only $15/night in Miami Beach, which was across the causeway from where the conference venue was.

Took a shuttle from MIA airport (which is nowhere near as cool as Ft. Lauderdale).  I’m sure there’s a cheaper way to get into town but it sure is a pain in the ass.  Nothing like going to Reagan National from Georgetown…which is a shuttle and a metro ride away, very conveniently.

The hostel was awesome.  Reviews on online hostel sites complained about the recent construction but I didn’t think it was as bad by the time I got there.  I had an 8-person co-ed dorm room.  There were only like 5 of us in there though.

The great thing about hostels is that everyone’s there to hang out and they’re from all over.  One person I met is a forensic linguist in grad school.  His friend is a masseuse from up north.  Another roommate didn’t speak English and I can only assume she was shy and Scandinavian.

I ended up only checking the beach nearby out for a little bit since it was overcast and a little chilly.  Met up with a friend of mine and ate at a cool Cuban joint down the street called Puerto Sagua, a low-key, family-style place with great food that a Miamian at Georgetown recommended to me.  I got the bistec de Palomilla, also on her recommendation, to go with plantains.

After that, I went back to the hostel and ended up hanging out the rest of the night in the lounge/bar area that had a pool table and a great vibe.  My roommates and I played pool and shot the shit until late.

So much more value in a $15 hostel than in a $100+ hotel room, for sure.  If you don’t mind communal bathrooms and bunk beds.

The next morning I checked out and took the public bus across the causeway.  Checked in.

Jason Fried began the day.  He heads up 37signals, a cool company that sells project management web app services like Basecamp and Backpack.

This company is interesting because they keep a small staff and have varied ways of distributing and charging for their products.  Their book, “Getting Real”, is excellent and is available to read free online, but pay if you want a PDF or physical book.  Basecamp lets you run a small project off it but for more features and access, you subscribe.

Fried set the tone early in his talk by contradicting popular startup notions.  For one, he said startups should not see failure as something to be proud of, as many entrepreneurs do.  You should learn from all the small successes you make, not the big failure or big successes.  That is, how did you win these clients?  How did you identify this target base to go after, leading to increased sales?  The small things you learn through experience and not through books or blogs.

Fried said that the oil and lumber industries learned to turn their waste into more successful products.  Sawing wood produced sawdust and wood chips, that became marketable.  Oil by-products allowed for plastics.  So startups should find ways to use the by-products and waste of their main projects to see if they can turn in to products of their own.  I think Basecamp was a result of 37signals needed a project management suite to run their interior operations, for example.

Fried also said he doesn’t believe in giving your service away.  The relationship between a company and a paying customer is key — Fried noted examples of companies that got bought out and then ceased to operate, partially because they had no more responsibility for their users.  This contradicts the belief in advertising and radical freemiumism that is popular now among startups.  Fried believes people will pay for a product they love.

And finally Fried said that if you’re going to hire for a position, you need to know how to do that position in some capacity first.  Else, how would you know what to hire for and who to get?  Are you going to just let HR take over?  What does your business need?  How can you give orders to someone if you don’t know what he does?

So I really liked Fried’s lecture.  He tells you what you don’t want to hear:  charge for your product instead of try to build users first.  He questions assumptions.  He has a good product.

Ben Galbraith of Mozilla and Dion Almaer formerly of Google spoke about four changes coming down the pipe for browsers.  They likened the switch to when AJAX came out in terms of how our web site experience changed.

They talked about Web Workers, which is similar to Google Gears in that it takes scripts out of the browser, which can only really handle one script at a time, and can poll them when needed.  This allows for thread-like browser operation.

They also extolled the virtues of Canvas, which lets you (I assume) create in-browser Javascriptish 3D interfaces using the HTML standard.  So, think gaming. (what is Quake Live using?)

Then they talked about increased rendering capability in the browsers due to optimization, which will mean web apps will respond far faster and allow for things like Photoshop through the web.  And finally they brought up how something like Ubiquity can make browsing a more natural experience for you than “click to go to destination” and have content that doesn’t ever match you.   It’s somewhat like a command line for the web.  An implication of all this is that web apps will be readily converted into native apps as needed.  As Al3x of Twitter said, “They could rename the “Future of Web Apps” conference to “Past of Desktop Apps”. I still wouldn’t go, but they could.”

So our user experience with the web is going to fundamentally change yet again.

Joe Stump of Digg was interesting because he talked about keeping his developer teams small enough in essentially military-squad sizes of 5-6, even if there are far more developers than that.  It keeps them in the loop with each other.  Stump also advocated any project using a code repository and keeping a consistent documentation style, along with e-mail addresses to claim blocks of code.  Stump says developers are meant to be lazy…they know they can automate something with code so they don’t have to worry about it anymore.

Aza Raskin talked about Mozilla Weave — your “state” follows you from desktop to cellphone, as an example.  He calls for Tabs 2.0, a breakthrough in our still clunky tab management as many of us keep 10+ tabs open in our browsers now.

Dave Morin and Josh Elman promoted their company, Facebook, with Facebook Connect, which looks like Facebook is now allowing you to link any site to your vast (hopefully) Facebook friend network/social graph, thus immediately populating a new account with any of your friends also on the service.  This is a great change from the past where friend networks on each site take ages to develop.

The implications for what Facebook is doing are staggering.  They are creating a massive data feed of your social graph so you can employ your friends in participating in your life, your causes, etc.  At the same time, Facebook will eventually start letting you promote products to your friends (Beacon) across various networks, bringing in serious cash.  All this while we spend hours doing social grooming on Facebook with our friends, sharing more and more content with less and less concern about privacy.

It’s no wonder Facebook is taking over in countries all over the world, even against steadfast competition.

FOWA did this lameass panel on diversity on the speaker tour at one point.  It was good to see Chris Messina up there, a huge advocate for OpenID and also pushing for co-worker, providing shared spaces for people to be creative…  Kristina Halverson was also on the panel, after giving what was really a pretty boring speech on creating good copy.  Halverson was complaining about the lack of women at the conference and speaking on stage.  Wow, really?  You mean at a coder/developer conference, there aren’t many women?

I agree that there are awesome female coders and women working in Web 2.0.  Fine, great.  And to be honest some of them are more famous than most of the men…  So why aren’t they speaking?

Maybe specifically finding women to speak is something to keep in mind for the conference, but how about just finding entertaining, informative people?  It’s only a day of talks.

If you want to talk about gender equality and inclusivity, the conversation should be around earlier programs to get kids into engineering and math and science.  The rest of the fucking argument is moot.  Coders don’t disrespect women…they want to work with whomever can get the job done.

After a brief lunch there was a Phizzpop contest.  The first team of three guys created a Kiva-like funding site for space research.  It had a great Flash interface, funny video, good presentation.  These guys couldn’t have been very old.  The second team was made up of these old guys and their presentation was flat.  Wiry, blocky graphics, no coherent business strategy or model, trying to get astronauts and Twitterers to talk and share photos in space?  The presenter was horrible and said nothing of value.  The first team won, no contest!

One thing I think is interesting is how pro the web community is with slideshows.  If you’ve ever seen a military PPT or business PPT, you know how BORING they are.  300 slides of 100 words per slide.  Miserable…no fun.

But you get startup and web people, who are so used to pitching ideas and having fun, and you get these slick, fast-moving presentations that are engaging and interesting.  Something cool I noticed.

Joel Spoelsky gave a great talk on how he thinks attracting talent is the main aspect you should focus on.  Don’t skimp on the code or you’ll get a skimpy product.  To get great talent, pay up for it.  And buy good equipment for them, like adjustable desks and Herman Miller chairs.  Give the developers private offices around the business floor so they minimize distractions.  Developers die with every interruption; they need privacy to store lots of variables and thoughts in their short-term memory while coding.  Leave them be.  Only have meetings right after lunch to minimize distraction periods.  Coders only need to feed once a workday.  Closed door means no talkie.  Have a team lunch every day in the office’s kitchen at long tables to promote a good work atmosphere.

Alex Hunter from Virgin gave my favorite talk of the day about Brand 2.0.  You could tell he’s been talking with Gary Vaynerchuk a lot because both of them are always going on about going out there and ripping it and killing it when it comes to promoting your business and engaging your customers and fans.  They’re so animated when talking about ways to engage and interact.  How do you get a consumer to love you?  Then Hunter previewed the new Virgin web site that will affect all of Richard Branson’s properties.  The site has a sort of reputation system and virtual currency and rewards you for contributing to it.  Pretty cool!  I love to see that level of interaction with the customer…  He announced that Richard Branson and Ryan Carson and Gary Vaynerchuk would be blogging on the new Virgin site.  That’s a LOT of passion right there in those names.

Makes me desire even more to have my own web startup and spend much of my day engaging customers!  That was the goal of this conference, for myself:  to get myself totally psyched to work.  As if I weren’t enough already…

After Hunter finished his great talk, I had to leave.  I caught a cab to the airport and suffered a gate change and muzak.  MIA airport really is bad.  And I missed the launch of 280atlas (interface to quickly make web apps) and Gary Vaynerchuk, who’s always hyper and always awesome.  He finished off the day and judging by the FOWA tweets, everyone was loving what he had to say.  [edit:  here’s his video] But I had a great (but brief) time, even missing all that.

Bottom line, I learned a hell of a lot, and seeing these people in person made it more personal to me.  Seth Godin would call it seeking to be part of the tribe.  I can’t afford to go to any more of these things, and I am not friends with any of the people involved yet, but perhaps that will change.  For now, though, I felt it was an awesome, informative trip for a multi-disciplinarian who’s studying international affairs and international development.  It was invaluable to see where the future of things is going.

  • Interesting article! Definitely what you have written about facebook is something to keep in mind.