A couple of weeks ago I attended the Future of Web Apps Expo London 2008. I have to say, I was rather disappointed by the quality of some of speakers, and felt the event lacked the value for money of certain comparable events. After tweeting this and receiving a response from Gillian Carson, one of the organisers (and top marks to Carsonified for responding) I thought I’d go into a little more detail here, and mention some of the good points as well.
What makes a great conference?
I attended the second FOWA London back in February 2007, before the expo model was introduced, and witnessed some fantastic talks from the likes of Khoi Vinh, Simon Willison and Simon Wardley. These content rich talks were peppered with an bunch of short 15min sales pitches, rightly listed as such in the line-up. This meant if you weren’t interested in hearing the sales pitches, you could head out and do something else. Admittedly there wasn’t much else to see or do, but at least the line up was an honest one.
dConstruct08 was a fantastic event with a superb line-up. The talks were all 45mins long, so plenty of time to get stuck into some meaty topics. Many of the talks were around the idea of the web and social connections rather than focused directly on it, with opens the mind to start thinking about new topics. To me this is the kind of conference which can really provide value.
This years FOWA
This year I was pleased to note on studying the FOWA 2008 line-up there were no sales pitches, instead products were given a stand and an opportunity to promote themselves at leisure on a one to one basis on the expo floor…or so we were lead to believe. In actual fact, the line-up contained a number of sales pitches in disguise.
A few examples of pitches I caught
Stefan Fountains’ talk ‘How the future of mobile will change everything’, a half hour slot, contained a 5 min advert for his product Soocial, and a good 15 mins of discussion about why his product was so good. The final slide actually said ‘The future of mobile, is Soocial’.
‘Web will heal itself’ by Crick Waters of BT was a 20 min advert for a technology which involves using the browser as a telephony device.
‘Cloud Computing in the Enterprise - How Businesses are Taking Advantage of the Future of the Web’ was an out and out advertisement for Salesforce.com by Adam Gross.
On the closing day, we were treated to a run of 3 full advertisements for developer platforms - ‘How to Build a Desktop App for your Web App’ (Adobe Air), ‘Opening Yahoo up to Users and Developers’ and ‘Making the web more social with Facebook Connect’.
Now, you can argue that people are interested in learning about these technologies, in hearing about these apps, this may be true, but should we have to pay to do so? Are these talks the best way of spending our time and money, when we could easily get this information for free elsewhere.
My issue with the FOWA pitch talks
People paid up to around £400 for a ticket to the FOWA Expo, some I spoke to had come over from places such as Eastern Europe, and they weren’t speaking, so add to this cost flights and accommodation and you’re looking at £1000. To pay this sort of money, and be faced with a lack of real content rich talks, is a bit of a let down. Lots of people I spoke to at the after party, when I asked what they thought of the quality of the talks either expressed disappointment or responded by pulling a face and looking awkward, perhaps not wanting to say what they thought.
If a talk is a pitch, it should be sold as a pitch.
If there aren’t enough quality talks, focused on sharing ideas and non product related concepts, then the event is too large and should be scaled down.
If the event is going to contain talks which could be perceived to benefit the speakers external business more than the attendees, the price should reflect this.
The good side of FOWA
There were some great talks at this years event as well, and my opinion of the event was far from all negative.
Tim Bray from Sun Microsystems gave a simultaneously chilling and inspiring talk on the future in the face of financial meltdown that he rustled up the night before.
Jason Calacanis failed to grasp any of Tom Nixons’ great points on work life balance in a hilarious debate which proved that any idiot can make a million if they work hard enough, but you wouldn’t want to work with them.
Gavin Starks of AMEE explained to a depleted room how to decrease the enviromental impact of your web app (don’t save as much unessecary data, use less power and build better proccesors).
It was also great to see Mark Zuckerberg, the guy behind I Can Has Cheez Burger Ben Huh and son of weatherman Michael Fish, Tony Fish.
The opening nights after party was also full of people to meet and talk to, although the closing night was rather invaded by Digg fans and I took refuge in the Japanese restaurant next door with a few others and had some fantastical conversation about the government purchasing Yahoo! These kind of chats are what these events are really about though. As an added bonus, on returning to the hotel we saw Kevin Rose from Digg disappearing into the lift - nice to be sharing your digs with the ‘top dogs’ of web 2.0.
My suggestions for improvements
Here are my recommendations on how FOWA could be improved in a future where less money will be flying around:
- Mark pitches as pitches, charging these people to speak (if they weren’t this time)
- Scale the event back down to one day, charging less and being more selective about who speaks and what they can speak about
- Get rid of the expo idea, and scale back to a handful of stands - did anyone just attend the expo? Looked pretty quiet out there to me!
- Keep the after-parties for people with a full price conference ticket
- The Excel centre should be rethought as a venue - its hard to get to and is short on food and drink options
Basically, looking back to the model of previous events could be just the thing for getting FOWA back on track and ensuring its survival.
The essence of events like FOWA, is those meetings with other people, feeling a part of a bigger community, catching up with old friends and making new ones. This is something one can easily do at events like [BarCamp] however, where the ticket is free, the talks are never self promoting and everyone pulls together to make things happen.
As times get harder, I believe the future of conferences may lie with events that aren’t all about the pitches, sales stands and high ticket prices.
FOWA fail? Almost, but not quite yet.
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