Thursday, February 09, 2006

Future of Web Apps Conference, London

I spent the last few days in London to visit a friend who's in the process of launching a start-up. In addition, I attended the Future of Web Apps Conference, which attracted quite a few big-name speakers: David Heinemeier Hansson of 37 signals, Joshua Schachter of, and Cal Henderson of Flickr were all there.

Here's a quick summary of the talks I liked most:

Joshua Schachter

Joshua's and Cal's talks followed a dangerous new trend in designing presentations. It seems like people now have seen too many Steve Jobs keynotes, or maybe, consumed too much Presentation Zen: There is a trend towards super-simplistic slides with just one word or a short phrase on them. This is fine if you're a good presenter like Joshua and can explain in words what your point is. But you have to be sure you have something substantial to say. Buzzwords don’t help.

Joshua talked about a lot of stuff that almost seems obvious these days ("solve a problem you really have", "focus on the user experience", "don't add features too soon", etc.). However, he did say some surprising things.
  • Scaling: Don't think about it from the start. When designing a new product, focus on actually launching it, not on making it scale well.
  • Abuse: Don't be overly prepared for it. See what breaks before you fix it. It's better to lauch early and run into problems than to be too cautious and launch too late.
I'm not sure I agree with these points. The CS student in me screams "but you need to think things through, right from the start!"

There were two good ideas on testing to take away:
  • Survivorship Analysis: If a user tries out a feature in week 1, does he still use the feature in week 10? Obviously, this is an excellent way to find out how good and "sticky" a new feature is.

  • Ghetto Testing: When testing your site, go to a local Starbucks and offer people lattes to test your site. This is usability testing that's easy to do, cheap, and will get you an excellent random sample of people.

David Heinemeier Hansson

One of the big stars at the conference was David Heinemeier Hansson, the creator of Ruby on Rails. He held a talk that was a slightly modified version of the earlier "Pursuit of Beauty" presentation.

David was also the first speaker to actually show code on his slides, a brave feat if you consider that the previous speakers' slides had very few words each.

The first time you hear his talk, it will probably strike you as very aggressive. He's not shy to say that "PHP is the devil" and that if you don't want to use Ruby on Rails, you're probably just not ready for it yet. That being said, the concepts behind Rails on Rails (e.g. "convention over configuration", "don't try to do everything for everyone") are very solid.

In person, David seems like a much nicer guy: When I asked him about internationalization in Rails, he was very helpful and gladly listed all the different approaches (Localization, Globalize, and Gettext) I could employ.

Good talk overall, and also interesting to see David in person.

Steffen Meschkat

Mesch is a friend at Google who works on Google Maps. He was the last speaker of the day. His presentation stood in sharp contrast to the jazzed-up Keynote presentations of the other presenters: It consisted of simple HTML pages.

I think Steffen's speech can be summarized as follows: Many things in the existing web standards – CSS, DOM, JavaScript – are broken or not well done. That makes it harder to develop good AJAX applications. Harder, in fact, than it seems to the end user. However, that puts you at a great advantage if you know what you're doing.

A very good talk with many technical details. I hope the marketing people in the audience did not mind.

Closing Thoughts

With very few exceptions, none of the things said at the conference really surprised me. Everything said has been thoroughly discussed on blogs. There were two points that were stressed again and again by different speakers:
  • Clean URLs: Make understandable URLs with sensible, clean contents. Then, keep them permanent.
  • APIs: Use APIs to build a community of developers who adore you, and benefit from free features that you'd have no time to develop.

The Verdict

Interesting to see the big-name guys in person, but no truly new ideas or content.


LT said...

A lack of new ideas is to be expected.

What about the Gherkin?!

fad said...

Great report. It's always fun to read about such conferences you visited.

fad said...


there's a list from Joshua Schachter about the subject at reddit: