FOWA 07: Round up and impressions

So the notes are up, the dust has settled, and I’ve recovered from all the excitement. Time to think about the Future of Web Apps and give my opinions, as so nicely requested by Alan Patrick. I don’t usually have time to both take notes and think about my reactions to what’s being said – the notes are just my way of processing what I’m hearing. If I don’t take notes, I tend to fall asleep, so it’s a sort of conference survival mechanism thing, really. Anyway…

Firstly, I have to thank Ryan, Gillian and Lisa for letting me in to cover the conference. We had agreed that I would write short summaries of each session for their live coverage page, but problems with the wifi meant that it was really difficult for me to get the summaries to Lisa who was posting them live, so we really only managed to get a few of the talks from the first day posted. I feel a bit bad about that, but I hope that the comprehensive notes I have posted here will do instead.

The wifi was a real problem this year. Last year, they’d organised great wifi, but this year, despite spending good money on it, one of their suppliers failed and there was no wifi except BTOpenzone, which on the first day crumbled under the weight. It was a bit better on the second day, but still not all that reliable. I really hope that Carson get their money back, and compensation, from whichever supplier screwed up. Wifi at conferences is really important, and it’s something that significantly changes attendees’ opinion of a conference, so I feel for Ryan, having spent so much on it only to have it die.

Now, on to the content. The tone of this year’s conference was very different to last year’s, in my opinion. It was much more business- and vendor-led, with fewer of the sort of inspirational talks that we had last year, from people like David Heinemeier Hansson, Tom Coates, or Cal Henderson. I think that made it a little flatter this year, with fewer ‘wow’ moments.

The highlight, for me, was without a doubt Simon Willison talking about OpenID. Simon’s good at being excited about things – he has an energy and enthusiasm which is totally contagious, and by the time he finished his talk I immediately wanted to run off and set myself up an OpenID server.

Stef Magdalinski and Richard Moross from Moo were also great. Stef has a great style as a speaker, a nice wry humour that I very much appreciated after some of the dry sponsor slots. Plus I love Moo. They produce the best business cards I’ve ever seen, and every time I give one out, people notice it, notice the quality and the unusual dimensions, and they immediately love them. Which reminds me, I really must get some more done. So, as a fan of the product it was great to hear more about Moo, and surprising to hear that they are based in London. For some reason, I thought they were based in San Francisco! Just goes to prove, yet again, that the best start-ups don’t always come from America.

Tara Hunt’s presentation on community was very interesting. I think I know a bit about community but Tara had lots of interesting stuff to say and said it well. My only criticism was that she tried to cram a bit too much in, and so she went a little bit too fast for me to keep up.

Notable product pitches came from Simon Wardley from Zimki, who should get some sort of special award for effective use of photos of kittens with guns, and Stefan Founatin from Soocial whose presentation was funny and inspiring all in one.

So, what didn’t I like? Well, I don’t like boring presentations from people who could only talk about how great their own company is. Werner Vogels from Amazon totally wasted a good opportunity to talk about on-demand resourcing in a useful and interesting way, instead choosing to bang on about how great S3 and EC2 are as if that was all we needed to know. He had the beginnings of a really good talk about push- and pull-mode resourcing, and could have given us a really useful insight into how S3 and EC2 actually work, but chose the patronising ‘Look how great we are! These people use our service! Our service is great!’ route instead. When someone asked “How do you ensure that the data you host on S3 isn’t lost”, he totally refused to answer and basically just told us to trust them. Sorry, but you can’t demand trust, you have to earn it.

Here’s a general tip for people representing their company at a conference. Remove every single superlative from your presentation. I don’t want to see you saying that your product is ‘the best’ or ‘most this’ or ‘incomparable’ – I won’t believe you anyway. You can do more to enhance your company’s reputation by giving an interesting talk that’s only tangentially related to your products or services than you can by blathering on about how great you are.

As for sponsor talks, well, frankly, sponsors should never be allowed anywhere near the stage unless they have something genuinely interesting to stay.

Barring a few boring talks, I came away from FOWA 07 feeling pretty good – I enjoyed myself and had some good conversations. It wasn’t as inspirational as last year, and I think I’d prefer next year’s to go back to a one-day format but be much more rigourous about who gets invited to speak than have two days with sponsor chaff clogging things up.

Of course, I’m secretly hoping that next year I’ll be able to come up with a relevant talk to submit myself, but I guess that depends on how much Ruby on Rails I get my head round in the meantime. But either way, I’ll certainly be hoping to attend again.

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