FoWA 2009

This year's conference was a smaller scale that the last couple of years, and had a little more emphasis on marketing. It had relocated to Kensington Town Hall, and become a single-track affair with more shorter talks.

With this in mind, there was a certain lack of optimism as to the quality of talks we could expect. The conference also suffered, as it does every year, from the ability of (in this case) 800 geeks to crash every electronic communications network (WiFi, 3G, Edge) within a half-mile radius. Even the mains electricity browned out for a while.

Ryan Carson's introduction was as energetic as ever, but went into far more detail than anyone could ever care about on their "Hello App", which had been built as a way to help attendees find and meet each other, by allowing them to tag, via twitter, their locations & interests on a map of the auditorium. It would have worked far better if 1) it hadn't been feature-creeped to hell, 2) the wifi was remotely stable and 3) the Hello App server didn't keep crashing.

While the Hello App proved later in the conference to work pretty well, this undertested & overhyped start set a low tone for the conference to begin.

However, the first presenter was Kevin Rose (@kevinrose), a highly-respected and reasonably energetic speaker, who opened with "Taking your Site from One to One Million Users". While last year's conference talked a lot about the technical aspects of scalability, this year, and this talk, focussed more on the social and marketing requirements for achieving growth. This had a strong theme of "making the site rewarding for the user"; it's now taken as a given that users can find pretty much any site they want to, so a site will need to be genuinely compelling and useful to keep a user's interest.

Reward can come in various forms, including:
1) Saving the user time
2) Saving the user money
3) Enhancing the user's standing and reputation (even ego)
4) Providing an enjoyable experience

For example, in the sake of Digg, the site aims to help the user find interesting stories (1,4) while involving them in a community (4) where they can grow a reputation (3) by finding and posting the most interesting stories. Digg's model on this has been mainly stable for a few years, but they still add tweaks such as giving more prominence in a story to the user who submitted it, to enhance (3) above.

Kevin also spoke about , a directory service for twitter where users can add and categorise themselves. The service encourages users to advertise the service by sending a tweet listing the categories they've adopted when they join up. Rather than just sending a plug for the site, which contains no user interest, this aims to at least give the user some involvement in the message being sent on their behalf. This wasn't taken as completely convincing by the audience (it's not obvious that you can sign up without tweeting this ad) but it's still noteworthy that they're trying to draw a boundary between useful advertising and spam.

This contrasts with another talk by Chris Abad (@chrisabad), director of a company that took a lot of flak for the volume of tweets that their Spymaster ( game sent on player's twitter accounts; in-game events triggered tagged messages on a user's behalf, and the volume of this was high enough to irritate people for a while.

Chris defended himself and his company on the basis that none of these messages were compulsory, and very few of them were even enabled by default. The problem was that each (of about 20 types) of message would add 1% to a user's score for game events; some highly competitive users turned all of them on while playing intensively, which caused massive twitter traffic. The volume was also increased by the unexpected speed at which the game "went viral" and spread worldwide.

Part of the problem with sending tweets on a user's behalf (or providing offers or competition access for retweeting a message) is that twitter, and particularly the commercial adoption of twitter, is far too new for anyone to have really worked out what the rules are. Therefore, anyone who wants to use twitter to promote a product treads a very thin line between acceptable use and spamming.

The second talk of the day was very much marketing focussed and didn't really grab the audience's interest; the key idea in it was of evaluating the success of promotional techniques by making sure that the source of every account signup (free and paid) is recorded as part of the user's record. This enables later evaluation of the sources, and ROI, of "good users". The message was "this is important, do it from Day One".

Another theme that arose in this talk, and was prevalent throughout the conference, was that "Freemium works". This is the practice of giving users basic (but fully functional) access to a site or application for free, but giving them the option to upgrade to various levels of paid service. In fact, for pretty much any sort of paid web application, freemium is seen as "the right model". Off the top of my head I can think of numerous sites & apps for which this works; Spotify, Travian, Live Journal, WeeWar and Flickr to name a few. The trick is to strike a balance which makes the free service genuinely useful, and the paid level(s) worth the incremental cost.

Talk Three was barely worth mentioning. Badly prepared slides, a very lame running joke, and a list of "Javascript frameworks I do/don't like".

Session Four was also fairly dismal; designed as a plug for lead sponsors Microsoft, a panel discussion on the Hello App system which was still virtually unusable at this point in the day. The theme was little more than "we used ASP.Net MVC 'cos we wanted to try something new". The talk was far from compelling.

Session Five appears to have also left an indelible blank on my mind, but fortunately, after that, the talks improved greatly and the conference woke up.

Francisco Tolmasky (@tolmasky) of pulled out some stunning online & desktop apps. Essentially they've ported / copied Apple's interface builder (for iPhone and OSX apps) to a web format to produce incredibly fluid and effective HTML/JS/CSS interfaces for web or desktop use. As this was a product demo there's not really much point my trying to describe it, so take a look at , and

It's not often product demos, especially for coding tools, get spontaneous applause, but these did.

These apps, together with Vodaphone's JIL widgets platform ( as demonstrated on their stand, also pointed to another theme of the conference - the use of web technologies on the desktop and as applets on mobile devices. 280's cappuchino apps join Adobe Air, OSX and Vista desktop widgets, as well as the Titanium and Fluid platforms.

After that, David Prager (@dlprager) spoke more on the theme of drawing in an audience to a site; his focus was on finding a real niche and then making life better for users in that niche. His examples included and , and his premise was:

1) Find a real, defined niche (rather than a vague online group or community)
2) Provide a core feature that's genuinely useful to that group (that "makes life better"), and build it well
3) Only once you've developed that feature thoroughly should you start adding further features, or expanding into related fields.
4) Truly targeted niche sites are a gift for advertisers who want to reach a specific audience

Paypal's talk on their advanced payments API can be best described by sending you to the videos at and the Paypal X blog at

Likewise, Facebook's Cat Lee appeared to be running purely from a prepared script, so see , particularly and (this latter is a fairly new integration tool for other sites)
Both Facebook and Paypal's new tools are interesting, but better described in their own words.

The next talk worth mentioning was Bruce Lawson's (@brucel) on HTML5, which backs off from the XHTML format in favour of specifying only as strictly as browsers require, but adds genuinely useful semantic markup and functionality such as headers, navigation and footers, directly embedded video, and multiple enhancements to forms, particularly in terms of front-end validation without Javascript. Again, trying to report a demo is of limited use, but suffice to say that this was very powerful stuff, very well received, and take a look at

Bruce also came back for a second session on day 2, and was saved from the death of his laptop by quick assistance from the Microsoft team at the event, so it's a pity that his attempt to show IE's HTML5 capabilities quickly failed to a blank screen after the required hacks failed.

Chris Thorpe (@Jaggeree) of The Guardian gave one of the highlight talks of the conference on "How The Guardian is using APIs, Frameworks and Tools to Build a "Mutalised" Newspaper" (slides here). This was an engaging talk with a lot of content, in contrast with Lynne D Johnson's rather shallow and unconvincing talk on "The Future of Print" the next day. The Newspaper industry is undergoing massive change at the moment, in large part due to the influence of the internet, and many papers are in extreme difficulty. The Guardian is trying to buck the trend by embracing the new technology and by becoming a platform that interacts with (and solicits leads, content and evidence from) its readers. They're also looking at becoming news custodians or brokers, adding value to information by supporting it with their investigations and reputation.

NB: Channel 4 news are also reaching out to viewers a lot at the moment; any time a big story breaks they'll be seeking views and feedback (and indeed photos and video) on twitter as @channel4news

Day 2

Day Two started off with Aza Raskin (@azaaza) from Mozilla, who talked about the future of the browser and of integrated data; the possibilities inherent in a "you-centric" browser and internet which would know where it was, who was using it, their friends and trust relationships from multiple social networks, and their tastes in (for example) music, news, books, leisure activities. Such a browser could gather appropriate advice and recommendations for its user in their current context and act as an "intelligent agent" for the user.

Then came the Twitter Front End Engineering talk; the main thing I can recall from that was that Brit Selvitelle (@bs) announced Twitter Labs. He didn't however mention what it was or when it'd launch. He also covered optimisation; mainly in the sense of "don't". Specifically, don't waste time prematurely optimising (or future-proofing); you should have unit tests around code that will protect any refactorings required when the time comes. Brit also underscored the important point that you should empower users to do what they want rather than forcing them to use a site or app "your way"; successful sites are the ones that meet the user's requirements, not the ones where they are forced to meet yours.

Then came Simon Wardley (@swardley); always rather an impressive speaker, this time with about 260 slides, which he reckoned would "cause permanent damage to the audience". Fortunately Simon's unique style is to use photographs as (frequently comic) backgrounds to his points rather than bullet-pointing every single thing he says, and it works. His topic this year was "The Future of The Cloud", and started with the essential (yet generally unanswerable) question of "What is the cloud anyway?".

The answer was a continuation of the trends which could be observed at the last two years' FOWAs; the trend from rarity and novelty to commoditisation and ubiquity that happens for pretty much any technology. In this case it's the transition of software and hosting from bespoke items, to stock items, to "stuff-as-a-service" (aka Xaas) to white-label commodity. Particularly, the construction of application or service stacks on top of multiple services, which leads to an implicit risk when the user at the top of the stack doesn't know who's providing the services at the bottom of the stack, and has no business relationship with them. Simon made the point that almost no clouds or stacks are entirely private, and so transparency - both in terms of who's relying on what, and in the standards used to connect between them - is essential. Any cloud that relies on a single provider or closed interface at any point becomes as vulnerable as that weakest link, so open and interoperable layers are definitely to be preferred.

However, the cloud is very much here to stay, and even with inevitable collapses and failures, the risks of not using the cloud will greatly outweigh the risks of using it.

Next up: Yehuda Katz (@Wycats) talking on agile development as related (particularly) to development of, or in Ruby and Rails. I really need to get hold of the slides for this one to dig out the details, but the core theme was "just get stuck in, and don't get hung up on side issues, optimisations and future-proofing".

Vodaphone's talk was fairly missable; it turned into a truncated live-coding demo for on-phone apps; I'm not quite sure what was planned but it didn't seem to happen. More info, competition and free dev environment can be found at

I also skipped the accessibility talk as I'd seen it (or something very similar) twice before in favour of talking to Yahoo and Vodaphone about their services and dev platforms, and browsing the remaining stands. Audioboo's API also seems worth a look, but there's a deficit of data right now; start at

Alex Hunter (@cubedweller) got very animated in his talk on the importance of your brand. The core seemed to be "giving a damn" about your brand; about yourself, about the service you provide your users. You need to truly define what your brand's about, not in "Miss World" terms of world peace, but in real concrete values that mean something to you. You need to both take pride in your reputation and be prepared to put it on the line. And you need to let your users connect with the people behind the brand - all of them - because "they can't connect with a building".

After a rather lacklustre and US-centric presentation on "the future of print", we got a unique (and very enjoyable) musical interlude from , which was somewhat messed up by the failure of the speaker's network connection; for reasons I simply cannot understand, the podium didn't have a wired connection but was sharing the open-use, flaky wifi network.

Post-lunch, prize for worst graphic design (but a very good talk) went to Dave McClure (@davemcclure)'s "Startup Metrics for Pirates: AARRR!"; again I can best describe this by pointing you to the slides at and telling you to turn the brightness on your screen down. It's actually a pretty good presentation on the importance of balancing features, user aquisition & rentention, and making money.

Chris Lea (@chrislea) of Virb also gave a very good talk on "Practical Advice for Managing the Growth of your Web App", which focussed on the difference between scalability and efficiency, two concepts that are often confused. Basically, scalability consists of the architectural decisions behind the coupling and componentisation of your app, which determine whether it can be moved to multiple servers and services. Efficiency, which is less important (because it leads to costs, rather than impossibilities) determines how many of those servers you need, and how long you can survive on existing infrastructure.

Recommended reading from this included the High Performance Web Sites book ( and the video versions at and

A quick Startups session called "Launch" then showcased @awaremonitoring, @gotestit and @broadersheet. Of these, was by far the most interesting (to me, anyway) as a very impressive, easy to use browser-based site test system; think Selenium but commercial, smoother and easier to use, and with automated multi-browser testing.

The final real talk was a slightly truncated but very impassioned one by Gary Vaynerchuk (@garyvee) which really focussed on "give a damn" and "just get on and do it", although again my memory's a bit short on detail right now. should provide suitable background.
Posted by parsingphase, 2009-10-05 10:48

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