October 7, 2005

Web 2.0 day two -- and a taste of Web 1.0

Author: Robin 'Roblimo' Miller

SAN FRANCISCO - Last night I was derelict in my duty. Instead of going to a supper billed as a "Conversation with Microsoft" I left the Web 2.0 Conference for a few hours and went to the Web 1.0 Summit at a bar a few blocks away, where we all pretended it was 1998 and presented can't-miss dot-com business plans to each other. But I have some serious observations about Web 2.0, too.

This morning -- I'm writing this on Thursday, October 6 -- there was a Web 2.0 discussion titled "Can Open Source Stay Open?" featuring Tim O'Reilly (of O'Reilly Media), Mitchell Baker (of the Mozilla Foundation) and, Jonathan Schwartz (of Sun Microsystems). Key moment: Schwartz asked how many people in the room used OpenOffice.org and was disappointed at how few hands went up.

The 800 people at this conference use Firefox like mad. Yesterday I asked 100 of them what browser they used by default; 58 said Firefox, 28 admitted to Internet Explorer, and the rest said they preferred other browsers, with Camino and Safari getting the greatest number of mentions in the "other" category. But this group has not yet embraced OpenOffice.org; Microsoft Office is far and away the #1 office suite around here.

But never fear. Open source is here to stay, even though big companies are busily gobbling up little ones that started out producing open source software or basing their Web businesses on open source.

Another panel, a few hours later, discussed Open vs. Closed Models. Some takeaway points:

  • Many young hotshot developers are walking in the door at companies like Yahoo! with heavy open source creds. Indeed, more often than not those open source chops are what got them in the door in the first place. And once inside, companies are learning that it's good to let them keep pursuing their interests -- either directly as part of their jobs, or outside of work hours with corporate encouragement.
  • Sometimes the main reason to buy an open source-based startup is to bring new talent into a more mature company. And by buying that startup, you can often keep the young talent from competing with you later on.
  • Keeping things open seems a little strange at first to venture capitalists and others steeped in the old "lock in your customers" culture, but in the long run it's better to keep things open if you're running a Web-based business. Maybe you still run your business partly on proprietary software, but at least you should have open APIs and use open standards instead of trying to lock things down. Let customers and third-party developers extend your work and in the long run you'll build a more loyal customer base and a larger developer ecosystem.

Ecosystem! He said Ecosystem!

This seems to be one of the biggest Web 2.0 buzzwords. "Community" is also used a lot. I mentioned "mashup" in yesterday's Web 2.0 report. But in the midst of all the buzz about ecosystems and mashups and disintermediation and tagging and RSS feeds and alerts based on RSS feeds (which Microsoft is pushing hard), Barry Diller reminded us that no matter how many blogs and communities and video search ventures get set up, there is a limited amount of talent out there to make the content on which so much of the Web ecosystem is based.

In an informal hallway conversation about Diller's pronouncement, the CEO of a major European blog hosting service told me at least 80% of all blogs started on his company's servers are soon abandoned. He has plenty of ad sales, but needs to find more -- and more consistent -- bloggers to keep drawing in eyeballs. And now, with everyone from Yahoo! to Google to just-debuted Brightcove clamoring for video content people will actually want to see, the talent pool is going to be stretched even thinner.

Maybe those of us who type the words and run the video cameras are no better than plankton in the ocean of online content, but without us at the bottom of the food chain there would be no articles to which bloggers could link and no videos to search or deliver with catchy 30-second ads strung onto their ends -- ads which, according to the panelists at Web 2.0, can command prices far higher than any other kind of Web advertising.

But back to the buzzwords. They are all over the place around here, and I am not the only one mocking their use. Here's a second-hand anecdote: At last night's "Conversation with Microsoft" supper, a whole table full of people decided to cheer loudly every time they heard an overused buzzword. "We did it because it was a really dumb presentation," said one of the people at that table. "We were bored to death. I wanted to go to Web 1.0 but I was here for my company and I couldn't leave. I bet there weren't as many buzzwords at Web 1.0."

The Web 1.0 Summit

I'm sorry, Ms. Cheer-For-Every-Buzzword (whose name is being withheld here for obvious reasons), but Web 1.0 was full of buzzwords. Heck, buzzwords were the point of the thing. Its tag line was "Scaling Extensible Whatever with Blah Blah Blah Across the Enterprise. (TM)" That's what it says right on my badge, and of course they gave out badges, because there is no way you can have a Web or Internet conference without them.

I had the only Press badge for Web 1.0, which was quite an honor even if I had to write "PRESS" on it myself. But it was that kind of gathering, basically a group of people who lived through the years when companies "bulked up" for IPOs by hiring lots of new employees even if they had nothing in particular for them to do. I wore a classic EFF "bulldog" t-shirt. Others wore shirts from long-gone dot-bombs or shirts touting Apple products from that era. Big old (now unworkable) cell phones in belt holsters were the coolest fashion accessory. And then there were the business plan presentations....

...one of the best of which you can see at this link, from which you can go to a huge gallery of Web 1.0 photos and an MPEG-4 video of Web 1.0 organizer Merlin Mann's somewhat obscene (and totally hilarious) closing rant.

The point of this thing was a lot of people taking turns giving two-minute business plan presentations to a badly-dressed throng jammed into a too-small room, with each business plan appropriate for 1998, including the CueCat presentation linked to above. (I have special memories of that one). And Squirrel.com, a Web site that would be all about (and possibly for) squirrels, with no discernable revenue model whatsoever. And an O'Reilly person -- a real one -- handed out O'Reilly books from the dot-boom era.

And every time someone used a corporate-speak buzzword, everyone cheered and drank. And clapped. This meant there was lots of cheering and clapping and drinking. This was not a sober bunch.

But then, wasn't the heady wine of imminent riches part of the original dot-boom feast? Weren't we all a little drunk on the knowledge that we'd all soon have mansions and exotic sports cars and the other benefits of success in this new medium and the Endless Boom based on it?

There is nothing like spending a few hours in a yesteryear when we were all young (or at least younger) and all of our futures seemed limitless.

I even presented a silly 1998-ish business plan myself, one in which a small Web company would buy a Midwestern college student's popular "news for nerds" Web site, then do an IPO. It got as much laughter as the others.

Back to Web 2.0

Those were the good old days, but at Web 2.0 we're in the good new days, where we may not have Squirrel.com but Dogster.com is a real (and popular) Web site. And today -- Thursday -- Mark Cuban told us the real reason why the RIAA and MPAA and their member companies sue their customers.

He pointed out that there aren't but maybe 10 or 12 top movie or recording studio executive spots out there, and that the people in them get millions of dollars and starlets and limousines and all kinds of other strokes and perks and such, and that their major mission in life is not to make money for the shareholders or support the artists or be good to the fans, but to hold onto their cushy jobs.

And, said Cuban, as long as there were boogeymen they could blame for their companies' poor financial performance -- said boogeymen being those evil Internet content pirates -- they wouldn't get fired because all those losses weren't their fault, no, no, no.

Fellow panelist -- they were discussing The Future of Entertainment -- Michael Powell said that it's often easier for big companies to sue than to be creative. He got a pretty good laugh with that line.

A third panelist, Netflix CEO Reed Hastings, said that the technology was in place for his company to deliver movies via overnight download instead of through the mail, but that the licensing for a physical DVD was simpler for movie studios to grasp than download licensing.

But they all agreed, as did the fourth panelist, Evan Williams, that Web-based content delivery is here to stay and is going to grow despite the movie studios and record companies. If they don't want to play, so it goes. Someone else will fill that hungry Internet maw. (Maybe you?)

More parties!

Tonight there's a VIP party hosted by NewsGator, followed by a cocktail reception hosted by AT&T, followed by birds of a feather sessions that, according to the program, are going to be at "various San Francisco restaurants."

Tomorrow -- Friday -- things start off with breakfast at 7:30 a.m., sponsored by NewsGator. The day ends with a closing reception sponsored by Yahoo! that starts at 5 p.m. and will probably go on until it's time for me to head to the airport for a red-eye flight back to Florida.

This is a draining conference for me, and I'm sure it's far more draining for people who paid $2800 to be here and are determined to get their money's worth. Many of them will, no doubt. Hiring feelers are out all over the place. Venture capitalists are looking for investment possibilities, and there are plenty of eager entrepreneurs looking for investors. In between the hype and buzzwords, there's a fair amount of thinking and discussing going on, and some new and interesting ideas are being presented. Business is being done. You might even say that businesses are being created here -- and you'd be right, in at least a few cases.

It was fun to spend a few retro hours in the heady days of the Web 1.0 1998 dot-com madness, but in many ways Web 2.0 in 2005 isn't far removed from that era in spirit. There's a prevailing attitude here that the Web is about to become something more than it is now (Web 2.0 - get it?), and even if we aren't all going to get mansion-rich out of the move toward a community-based, broadband multimedia Internet experience, a whole bunch of us will be able to make decent salaries (or go on making decent salaries) doing what we love.

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