FOWA London 2008: Ominous Undercurrents and Hopeful Horizons

FOWA London 2008

FOWA London 2008: on target?

Prior to last year’s FOWA London, I wrote a post outlining my hopes and fears for the conference. At the 2007 event, there was indeed much talk of making big bucks and not so much about big, critical ideas like open social computing. Nonetheless, there was undoubtedly a huge buzz of excitement in the air at FOWA 2007 – everyone seemed to have a sense that they were helping to forge a new web which really could change the world forever – and I came away invigorated and inspired by the creativity and entrepreneurialism on show. (It even spurred me to versify.)

This year that palpable sense of excitement was noticeably absent, but in its place emerged a more thoughtful introspection about what really matters. The need for interoperability and data portability, for example, was vocally supported by many speakers and delegates, which was good to see.

But against a backdrop of catastrophic economic news, day one’s conference sessions made barely a reference to the fact that the until-now-successful model of many Web 2.0 start-ups – bootstrap, build, be aquired – is today looking decidedly shaky. It’s hard to get excited about developing something for the investment dollars when you know those dollars are going to be in increasingly short supply. Ben Huh of icanhascheezburger.com gave the best speech of the day, on the power of community, and most attendees I spoke to thought the same. He said his success with LOLcats had completely surprised him and advised attendees to do something they were passionate about and hope it chimes with others. Simon Wardley’s was the day’s other stand-out speech, offering a comprehensive overview of the bigger picture of business innovation. (Simon also chaired the business track on both days with considerable flair.)

Day two of the conference, however, was much better overall than the first, largely due to the tone set by opening keynote speaker Tim Bray of Sun, who wisely tore up his planned speech to focus instead on the implications of the economic crisis for the Web development and start-up community. “I’m scared,” he said. “I think the future of web applications is fairly dark at the moment because the future is fairly dark…I predict some really shitty times coming at us for a while.”

shooting from the hip

Sun's Tim Bray: shooting from the hip at FOWA London 2008

Despite the initially apocolyptic tone, Bray gave some useful and hopeful pieces of advice to improve attendees’ chances of survival and happiness in the times ahead. Essentially these were:

  • Agile project development is the only way forward (there’ll be no sign off on big projects).
  • Open source software can keep the cost of projects down.
  • Get in the cloud – but be wary of supplier lock-in.
  • Become part of the conversation – engage with customers, etc, online through social networking platforms.
  • Think about the technology infrastructure needed to support the scalable, transparent system of regulatiion that’s going to be needed as a surge of regulatory pressure comes down on business and finance.
  • Legacy skills are going to be in demand – particulaly putting web front-ends on old systems.
  • iPhone, Android, etc. open up the mobile phone network to developers – presenting major opportunities.
  • Build something for yourself – follow your passion rather than trying to fill a need.
  • Stay away from VCs – they have very little of value to offer you and substantially decrease your chances of success.
  • Stop believing in technology religions and broaden your skills – e.g. developers should learn to design and designers should learn to develop – it’ll improve your job security.
  • Contribute to an open source project.
  • Contribute online – publish, comment, blog, add to Wikipedia. “If you don’t care enough to contribute to the web, why would anyone want to hire you?”
  • Network – talk to each other and build new connections, both physically and online.

After his speech, the conference seemed far more relaxed and content with itself. Okay, there may have been an element of people only finding their feet after the first day (and first-night party), but I suspect Bray was primarily responsible for the change of mood. It was as if he had finally unleashed the elephant in the room – and delegates could suddenly see themselves riding on it rather than being trampled underfoot.

* Overall, the event went extremely well, and I’ll blog more shortly about the conference, as well as the expo and social side – including live Diggnation and the post-event party. A big thank-you, too, to organiser Carsonified, who made sure the whole thing ran with an impeccable level of both technical precision and creative style.

You can see my full Flickr set of pictures from the event here (although I’ve not had time to add descriptions yet), and all my tweets from FOWA here.

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