15 Nov 2005

d.Construct 2005

The “UK’s first grassroots Web 2.0 conference” took place last week, right on my door step. It was held in a converted church, so insert your own congregation/peaching puns here.

As Andy Budd pointed out in the opening presentation, you can’t have a Web 2.0 conference without a discussion of what Web 2.0 is. Andy’s pitch was that, yes, it’s a buzz word, but words are useful to have to communicate a bag of related ideas. Although none of the technology is new, having a Web 2.0 state of mind means thinking in terms of richer more pleasurable user experiences, open formats, community involvement, and not being scared of JavaScript. Regarding the technology, he made a compelling analogy to steam engines: invented in 1st century, but not put to serious use until the industrial revolution of the 18th.

Examples given: ononemap, netvibes.com, backpackit.com, meebo.com (web-based IM client), writely.com (a Web 2.0 word processor, with collaboration features: absolutely stunning).

So there’s now a renewed energy around web, with a continuing shift from document delivery to application delivery. There was a hint that some of the inventiveness of new user interfaces was a reaction to a stalling in the evolution of XHTML standards. But Andy cautioned to remember the hype cycle (he didn’t say where we were on the curve), suggested that people should maybe have a business model, and that we shouldn’t throw out usability or standards.

Looking ahead, he sees strong activity in OpenLazlo, XUL, Flex, Widgets and, of course, Ajax.

In the Q&A time, the phrase microformats came up, which was a new phrase for me. Appears to be a mind set for putting together simple problem-specific formats to solve problems, as opposed to one honking big format to solve all problems. Sounds sane.

Stuart Langridge was second, and he’s a great speaker. I thought I recognized that voice. If you get an opportunity to see him talk, go along.

His topic was DOM scripting, which he described thus: as CSS separates presentation from structure, so JavaScript separates behaviour from structure. In practice this means waiting for the DOM structure of a page to load in a browser, and then walking the structure decorating JavaScript event handlers where needed. This gives you graceful degradation: produce a regular page, then change it at the last minute if the JavaScript is executed. The example he gave was a library for making tables sortable: adding a JavaScript include to a page causes the script to walk the tree looking for tables and adding column heading sorting links. In this way you can evolve a site with Web 2.0 functions.

There’s an issue with this: users could start interacting with the page before the JavaScript has the opportunity to change the page. The answer, apparently, will be new browser hooks to have the script run after the structure is loaded, but before the page is rendered. Something to look out for.

Simon Willison from Flickr/Yahoo! was up next and gave a introduction to the Flickr API. Apparently the API exists because the founders wouldn’t trust their photos to a start up, so didn’t expect anyone to trust Flickr without a way to access the data. It’s also easier than writing an all-singing export tool (let the users do it themselves) with the side effect of lots of innovative applications get built. In fact, the summary benefits of providing the API are: better software design, user trust and innovation elsewhere.

Flickr is built on PHP, MySQL with some C/C++ for certain performance areas and Java for longer running tasks.

Ben Metcalfe is the project leader for backstage.bbc.co.uk, and told us about the current offerings from the BBC. The deal is that you can get at travel XML (problems on the roads or trains), news and sport RSS, TV listings and, soon, weather data but all on strictly non-commercial usage. We then saw the first public demo off the BBC Programme Catalog (“IMDB for BBC”) which is a rich data set of who appeared in what when.

Tom Hume’s presentation on mobile was insightful as always. He came up with a nice description of picture messaging as gifting—like the Royal Mail’s “I saw this and thought of you” ad campaign. His comment that perhaps AJAX was a step backwards surely should have led to some chair throwing, but no-one took the bait.

“The state of the Art on the Flash Platform” was a presentation from Aral Balkan. He explained that there’s now plenty of open source Flash work going on, which I think came as a pleasant surprise to many in the audience. Although we know Flash mostly from funky comedy animations or annoying “skip intros”, Aral’s been working on a business application for Marvel Comics. I’ve written about Flash and Web 2.0 before, so won’t comment further here.

The day ended with Cory Doctorow talking about the evils of DRM in Europe.