FoWA summary

After last's years FoWA, I summarised the show as having four main topics:

- Interoperability & APIs
- Identity & privacy
- XaaS (Xtuff as a service)
- Taking the web offline

This year, the primary themes were of scalability and social information exchange. This incorporated the first two points above, but the attitude towards them has changed; with the increasing maturity of the "Open Stack", interoperability is not a question of "how?" but "when?" (with an answer of "now, or very soon") and standardised APIs rather than custom ones. Even FaceBook, known as a non-adopter of the Open Stack, expect to support it in the future. The tone is "Interoperability is here, we're cleaning up the details".

One of the key details raised is identification/authorisation. The "password antipattern", and sites requiring it, take a particular hammering. Sites need to interoperate and share data, and if you fail to provide API methods to do so, expect to be shunned.

Xaas featured less visibly, with the exception of SalesForce who, as a major sponsor, used both their slots as raw sales pitches for their product. This was clumsy on their part; geeks don't like sales pitches, especially when they've been promised a technology talk. Web office apps are considered almost as commodities and were not particularly visible; there was no SlideShare or Huddle (or similar) stand or talk this year.

The "offline web" is still seen in large part the territory of Google Gears (still a beta), AIR apps and iPhone apps; connectivity is widely seen as more critical than offline access, or it may just be that connectivity is more prevalent than even last year.

Another noticeable aspect of this year's show was the reduced number of startup stalls; there was a definite air of "business as usual".

There was one more background theme; that of economic recession, but there was, albeit with due caution, the feeling that the web industry was large enough, flexible enough and robust enough to handle the situation reasonably well.

Scalability was the other large issue; there are a lot of web apps out there that have reached significant size, and all new ones should be prepared (if not prematurely optimised) to get big. Elaine Wherry of meebo put it well; "Scalability is a nice problem to have - until you have it".

Scaling is generally independent of the language used; Almost all well-coded apps will be I/O-bound, not CPU- or memory-bound, and so it's the application architecture that matters. That architecture should minimise its coupling and interdependence, both to eliminate single points of failures and to improve the "plugability" of scaling. Work should only be done synchronously when that's inevitable; don't keep the user waiting, and don't make every page a heavy load; if you have to do hard work for every page hit (rather than asynchronously) you can't back off when you need to.

Once more it's worth noting that good modularity and strong encapsulation are a good design decision for many reasons; not just for scalability but also for testability, development and maintenance.

The final key issue could be described as "human scalability", or "Drinking from the information firehose". There's frankly too much data out there for humans to absorb (FoWA itself was a microcosm of this), so it needs to be filtered and managed. Both Digg and Fav.or.it covered this, in terms of "finding relevance" and of presenting data; how to identify material of interest to each specific user; not merely the relevance of topics, but of supplier, format, tone, complexity and the viewpoint taken.

One problem raised with this was "If you filter data that precisely per user, don't you risk telling them only what they want to hear? Aren't you narrowing their horizons?" This is, as yet, a question without a solid answer; filtering isn't quite good enough for it to be critical yet. There's also the question as to whether apps should seek to "improve" their users, or merely give them the tools to do so.
Posted by parsingphase, 2008-10-11 19:14

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