Special Report by Jackson West
Another year and another great time in Austin was had at South by Southwest Interactive. While I haven’t seen the numbers, it seemed to be an even bigger crowd than last year. This was the first official ‘Web 2.0’ edition of SXSWi, as evidenced by both who was throwing the parties and what the panels were about. The usual roster of A-List bloggers, young kids just out of college and startups marketing their new applications were all on hand. For a peek into the world of parties and panels, check out Scott Beale’s exhaustive sets of photos.
Of course it’s physically impossible to go to every panel at the conference, much less every party, and when you have friends speaking at or hosting both, sometimes personal priorities trump the professional. But when those same friends are on the front lines of some of the most exciting trends in web technology, I figured I could forgive myself just this once. Besides, there are plenty of opportunities to see the likes of Jason Kottke and Craig Newmark struggle with public speaking, whereas catching presenters discussing how technology helped in Katrina relief efforts or how to turn a side-project into a viable company are all too rare.
The fun started fo on Saturday with the Jim Coudal and Jason Fried keynote. They discussed a new paradigm for building applications with a small team. Coudal explained how his group chose projects by asking three questions, “Will we be able to do good work? Will we be able to make money on it? And will we be able to learn a little something new along the way?” Fried took to task the legacy of Web 1.0, which he said was characterized by the “Cold War mentality to always try to outspend everybody.”
Things got really interesting after Fried hoisted the “Functional Spec” on a petard, decrying it as a political document designed to cover one’s ass. Then a Yahoo employee stood up. “I’m Dustin, I work for Yahoo, and we write functional specs…If you say toss the functional spec, that’s a few people’s jobs.” Fried said that a simple story, combined with a mockup, was all his teams needed to visualize the application. When Dustin admitted that a typical problem was scope creep, Fried suggested that they should fix a budget and a time frame, and whatever scope is accomplished should be released as the first version.
After that we headed over to BarCamp Austin. BarCamp has made a habit of shadowing the major tech conferences, offering a free, open alternative. This BarCamp was a sight more lavish than the first one, with an orange Lotus parked outside sporting a BarCamp decal on the doors. But inside it was the same free-for-all of presentations and discussions we remembered. Carl de Cordova went into the details of the tech deployed to help Katrina refugees at the Austin convention center (where SXSWi is held), with dozens of AMD’s 50×15 internet appliances connected to monitors and keyboards allowed people to access the FEMA and Red Cross websites searching for relatives and disaster relief.
On Sunday we made a beeline for Ted Rheingold‘s “DIY Now More Than Ever” panel with LifeHacker‘s Gina Trapani, Delight‘s Lynda Keeler, Blip.tv‘s Mike Hudack and WordPress‘ Matt Mullenweg. Rheingold kept the discussion light and lively, joking, “Bubble 2.0 is kind of boiling up. The person on your right probably just sold their company to Yahoo for millions.” Trapani led with some guidelines for a successful project: Get into it for the right reasons, fail a lot and fail early, and ‘make a lot of noise in the kitchen,’ alluding to her Grandmother’s noisome efforts preparing meals for the family. Making noise means that people will recognize that you’re working hard on something that you’re passionate about.
One of the major issues brought up was how to get and keep a group working on a project when there’s no money for salaries. Hudack’s Blip.tv team was assembled from a group of geeks in New York City who met weekly for Indian food. Keeler suggested that offering exposure by being generous with credit was key, which Mullenweg agreed was instrumental in WordPress’ success. Trapani pointed out, “Luckily, we’re at a time when the community wants to give back.” Mullenweg later added, “90% of our community are doing the stuff, we’re just trying to help them.”
SXSWi has had a long tradition of hosting discussions about existing and emerging standards, but Monday’s “Standards Deviation” panel hosted by Sergio Villareal of Slide was a common sense look into when to eschew standards to achieve functionality that would otherwise be impractical or impossible. Kevin Gibbs of Google explained it thusly: “If it works, it works…I’m a pragmatist and a realist. I don’t care about what you can’t see in an application.” He discussed some of the approaches that were considered for in-browser Google Chat, saying that the optimal solutions turned out to be combined approach of ActiveX for Internet Explorer and XML-HTTP with a multiple-domain workaround for Mozilla. Not pretty, but functional. As fellow Googler Aaron Boodman explained, “Follw the spirit of the standards, not the letter.”
All the panelists were jokingly apprehensive of getting pelted by rotten tomatoes for expressing their opinions, as they felt that some of the more dogmatic evangelists for standards might get angry. They wondered if these zealots weren’t in fact alienating developers when they should be educating them, taking people to task, for instance, for pages that are perfectly functional but don’t validate as strict XHTML-CSS. Glenda Bautista, who confessed to creating the infamous transparent-Flash ads for DoubleClick, pointed out that unless you’re self employed, “you sometimes end up doing something you’re not proud of” out of necessity.
Between panels, I got a chance to talk with some of the folks behind the products like Stickam, imeem and TowerPod. Stickam, a multimedia content sharing solution for users of MySpace, Friendster and Blogger, had only been public a month and already boasted 30,000 users. With a desktop client and browser interface, imeem offers a one-stop shop for chat, multimedia and aggregating your existing blogs, though in a year of release has approximately the same user base as Stickam (imeem’s Steve Jang did say that, while accused aggressive and expensive marketing, all they’d done so far is throw a couple of parties at MacWorld and SXSWi).
We happened across Dave Toole of TowerPod over lunch at Las Manitas after trying to track him down all weekend. Offering fully rights-cleared music for your podcast, and with a physical presence due to debut in Tower Records stores across the country, it’s a sign that the podcast (maybe more than blogs) is going mainstream. As Eric Rice, a TowerPod content partner pointed out, “I can now add Elton John and Public Enemy tracks to my podcast, and that’s great if it can be used to help promote smaller artists.” Funnier still was the grinning face of the Podcast Pickle mascot in costume, whom we caught on Sixth Street as the music festival was gearing up.
An interesting note is that while most SXSWi attendees were generally too cool to have MySpace profiles, it was obvious that it’s becoming an increasingly popular user base to develop for. Stickam and imeem both had special accounts for entertainers, which have also driven MySpace’ success. The SXSW music festival was just around the corner, chock full of just the kind of bands and fans that dominate the service. If you’re a developer, ignore these users at your own peril. Because while the tech conference was packed, the music conference dwarfs it by an order or two of magnitude.
Of course, the parties are where all the frank discussion, inside jokes and business cards are traded. It was funny to see that the Yahoo and Google parties were headlined by their social web properties — Flickr, Upcoming and Del.icio.us for the former, Blogger for the latter. Consumating, Odeo and Adaptive Path teamed up for a wild one by all accounts, but I was busy making sure the Lifehacker party lived up to the debauchery Gawker is known for. While I’d like to report on some of the funnier jokes and snarkier observations, what’s said over cocktails in Austin stays in Austin. Look for me next year and I’ll be happy to introduce you around.
Jackson West is a San Francisco-based freelance writer. He writes on web 2.0 topics for Gigaom.com