October 6, 2005

Web 2.0 Conference: Open source everywhere

Author: Robin 'Roblimo' Miller

SAN FRANCISCO - Every time I go to a conference that doesn't specifically revolve around free and open source software I turn on my "Open Source Software Radar" (OSSdar) to see if I detect any signs of non-proprietary life in the area. This year's sold-out Web 2.0 Conference had so much open source going on that my OSSdar receptors went into overload mode. Even the Microsoft guys talking up MSN Search had Firefox and OpenOffice.org icons on their laptops.

Indeed, the open source aura was so strong here on the first day of Web 2.0 that I felt a little sorry for the MSN people, whose workshop was titled Building a Developer EcoSystem. Their session, at 8:30 a.m., had only attracted about 20 people when it started, while a discussion of AJAX from a business perspective in the 100-seat room next door had an audience so large that it spilled out into the hall. Two other sessions going on at the same time were also full to bursting.

This doesn't mean the Web 2.0 crowd is uninterested in search; a 9:45 a.m. session called Search by Another Name: New Ideas in Search drew nearly 200 people, with lots more trying to get into the room or at least near enough to the doors that they could hear what was being said.

A session I missed: Open Source Infrastructure. I talked to a few folks who went to it, and they said neither I nor most NewsForge readers would have learned anything new from it.

I browsed several other sessions, most notably Launch Pad: A Dozen New Companies in One Sitting. The biggest-buzz participant in this fandango was Zimbra, a company that's producing a "based on open source" replacement for Microsoft Exchange with backing from not one, not two, but three venture capital firms. NewsForge will surely interview Zimbra CEO Satish Dharmaraj at some point, and we look forward to testing -- or at least writing a case study about -- their product in a real, live enterprise environment. An awful lot of sysadmins out there seem to want to dump Microsoft Exchange servers, and an awful lot of the ones who have tried tell us they have been disappointed in the alternatives they've tested so far, especially when it comes to calendaring. Maybe Zimbra is the "Exchange killer" so many people have been waiting for. We'll find out.

Mashups as the Next Big (Web) Thing

Mashups combine other people's work into a new... something. Take clips from videos published on Ourmedia, add music from wherever, and you have a mashup. Think "sampling" -- and remember that lots of DJs and rappers have been sued big-time for using snippets of other people's copyrighted work without authorization. What about all those sites that combine Google Maps with some other cool idea to create something like a crime hotspot map? Or one that shows subway routes and slowdowns? Or whatever? These are all mashups, and this sort of thing seem to be a big deal at Web 2.0. Mashups allow you to start a Web service that is based on other people's work (and investment) so you don't need a lot of people (or investment) yourself, just as putting a "song" together from other people's music takes less musical skill (and investment) than writing and recording your own work from scratch.

When people here discuss mashups, they're not talking about fun little sites like Googlefight, but about mashup-based Web ventures that are being taken seriously as businesses not only by their developers but by venture capitalists, who seem to be back in the Web pie-in-the-sky business in a big way all of a sudden.

How to get venture capital

Shades of 1999! I met a venture capitalist who told me lovingly about his "early round of financing" for a company that had a nice-sounding idea behind it but didn't yet have either a domain name or working code. Then I met another VC with a similar story. And another. And I saw business cards exchanged to the tune of buzzwords I thought had died in the dot-com crash, plus a bunch of new ones that have popped up since then.

I thought giddily for a minute that I should run to the Office Depot across the street from the Argent Hotel (where the conference is being held) and grab some blank CDs. I could then come back to my room and make a slide presentation for a business that would develop a VoIP-based multimedia wiki that would track disintermediated community-generated podcast blog reviews. It would be based on open source software, of course. And cross-platform. And extensible and highly scalable.

The scary thing is, I'm not sure this would be taken as a parody. I have seen and heard several business plans today that made no mention of how they were going to generate income and were just as buzzword-laden as my fantasy one. And real, live venture capitalists are biting on these things!

I am not the only one who's had this feeling of 1999 deja vu at this conference. There is supposedly going to be a non-official "Web 1.0" party at a bar near the conference hotel this evening. I will try to get to it, even though that means I'll miss some or all of tonight's Web 2.0 Dinner, Hosted by MSN Search, Featuring a Conversation with Microsoft.

Free food from Microsoft or a maybe-not-really-coming-off clandestine party somewhere up the street. What a choice! And there are two other cocktail receptions tonight, too, one sponsored by Outcast PR before the Microsoft supper, and one after it sponsored by Google. No matter where I go, I doubt that I'll finish the evening sober. And tomorrow and Friday night there are more parties.

But I suspect the venture capital and entrepreneur crowd will be at the Microsoft supper, not at the renegade party, and I am supposed to be here doing serious news coverage, so "business before pleasure" takes over. Microsoft can surely afford to put out a pretty good spread. I'm sure those of you who have paid for Microsoft products over the years will want to know how your money is being spent, i.e. whether the food is any good.

More Web 2.0 coverage coming up

I'm writing this about 6 p.m. on Wednesday, October 5. It's the first day of the conference. I'll post at least two more stories about Web 2.0 between now and Saturday, and upload a bunch of photos sometime over the weekend.

NewsForge covered last year's Web 2.0. This year's version has a lot of the same business luminaries, plus lots of new ones. It has about twice as many people in attendance -- 800 as opposed to last year's 400. And it has more parties. Indeed, it has more scheduled parties and other after-hours events than any conference I've been to in my life, and if I don't cover this (ahem) important aspect of the event I would be a poor reporter, so I suppose I will head down to the Opening Cocktail Reception now, digital camera in hand, and see what's going on.

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