As I mentioned in my previous article, the FOWA London event on “The Future of Web Apps” featured a great deal of passion and enthusiasm for technology and software development systems. However, as I watched the presentations on Day Two, I was repeatedly struck by a deeper level of seriousness.
For example, AMEE Director Gavin Starks urged the audience to consider how changes in their applications could help reduce CO2 emissions. AMEE has exceptionally large topics on its mind: the acronym stands for “Avoiding Mass Extinctions Engine“. Gavin sought to raise the aspiration level of developers: “If you really want to build an app that will change the world, how about building an app that will save the Earth?” But this talk was no pious homily: it contained several dozen ideas that could in principle act as possible starting points for new business ventures.
On a different kind of serious topic, Mahalo.com CEO Jason Calacanis elicited some gasps from the audience when he dared to suggest that, if startups are really serious about making a big mark in the business world, they should consider firing, not only their “average” employees, but also their “good” employees – under the rationale that “good is the enemy of the great“. The resulting audience Q&A could have continued the whole afternoon.
But the most topical presentation was the opening keynote by Sun Microsystems Distinguished Engineer Tim Bray. It started with a bang – with the words “I’m Scared” displayed in huge font on the screen.
With these words, Tim announced that he had, the previous afternoon, torn up the presentation he was previously planning to give – a presentation entitled “What to be Frightened of in Building A Web Application“.
Tim explained that the fear he would now address in his talk was about global economic matters rather than about usage issues with the likes of XML, Rails, and Flash. Instead of these technology-focused matters, he would instead cover the subject “Getting through the tough times“.
Tim described how he had spent several days in London ahead of the conference, somewhat jet lagged, watching lots of TV coverage about the current economic crisis. As he said, the web has the advantage of allowing everyone to get straight to the sources – and these sources are frightening, when you take the time to look at them. Tim explicitly referenced http://acrossthecurve.com/?p=1830, which contains the following gloomy prognosis:
…more and more it seems likely that the resolution of this crisis will be an historic financial calamity. Each and every step which central banks and regulators have taken to resolve the crisis has been met with failure. In the beginning, the steps would produce some brief stability.
In the last several days, the US Congress (belatedly) passed a bailout bill, the Federal Reserve has guaranteed commercial paper and in unprecedented coordination central banks around the globe slash base lending rates. Listen to the markets respond.
The market scoffs as Libor rises, stocks plummet and IBM is forced to pay usurious rates to borrow. There is no stability and no hiatus from the pain. It continues unabated in spite of the best efforts of dedicated people to solve it.
We are in the midst of an unfolding debacle. It is happening about us. I am not sure how or when it ends, but the end, when it arrives, will radically alter the way we live for a long time.
Whoever wins the US election and takes office in January will need prayers and divine intervention.
As Tim put it: “We’ve been running on several times the amount of money that actually exists. Now we’re going to have to manage on nearer the amount of money that does exist.” And to make things even more colourful, he said that the next few days could be like the short period of time in New Orleans after hurricane Katrina had passed, but before the floods struck (caused by damage brought about by the winds). For the world’s economy, the hurricane may have passed, but the flood is still to come.
The rest of Tim’s talk was full of advice that sounded, to me, as highly practical, for what developers should do, to increase their chances of survival through these tough times. (There’s a summary video here.) I paraphrase some highlights from my notes:
Double down and do a particularly good job. In these times, slack work could put your company out of business – or could cause your employer to decide your services are no longer necessary.
Large capital expenditures are a no-no. Find ways to work that don’t result in higher management being asked to sign large bills – they won’t.
Waterfalls are a no-no. No smart executive is going to commit to a lengthy project that will take longer than a year to generate any payback. Instead, get with the agile movement – pick out the two or three requirements in your project that you can deliver incrementally and which will result in payback in (say) 8-10 weeks.
Software licences are a no-no. Companies will no longer make large commitments to big licences for the likes of Oracle solutions. Open source is going to grow in prominence.
Contribute to open source projects. This is a great way to build professional credibility – to advertise your capabilities to potential new employers or business partners.
Get in the cloud. With cloud services, you only pay a small amount in the beginning, and you only pay larger amounts when traffic is flowing.
Stop believing in technology religions. The web is technologically heterogeneous. Be prepared to learn new skills, to adopt new programming languages, or to change the kinds of applications you develop.
Think about the basic needs of users. There will be less call for applications about fun things, or about partying and music. There will be more demand for applications that help people to save money – for example, the lowest gas bill, or the cheapest cell phone costs.
Think about telecomms. Users will give up their HDTVs, their SUVs, and their overseas holidays, but they won’t give up their cell phones. The iPhone and the Android are creating some great new opportunities. Developers of iPhone applications are earning themselves hundreds of thousands of dollars from applications that cost users only $1.99 per download. Developers in the audience should consider migrating some of their applications to mobile – or creating new applications for mobile.
The mention of telecomms quickened my pulse. On the one hand, I liked Tim’s emphasis on the likely continuing demand for high-value low-cost mobile solutions. On the other hand, I couldn’t help noticing there were references to iPhone and Android, but not to Symbian (or to any of the phone manufacturers who are using Symbian software).
Then I reflected that, similarly, namechecks were missing for RIM, Windows Mobile, and Palm. Tim’s next words interrupted this chain of thought and provided further explanation: With the iPhone and Android, no longer are the idiotic moronic mobile network operators standing in the way with a fence of barbed wire between developers and the people who actually buy phones.
This fierce dislike for network operator interference was consistent with a message underlying the whole event: developers should have the chance to show what they can do, using their talent and their raw effort, without being held up by organisational obstacles and value-chain choke-points. Developers dislike seemingly arbitrary regulation. That’s a message I take very seriously.
However, we can’t avoid all regulation. Indeed – to turn back from applications to economics – lack of regulation is arguably a principal cause of our current economic crisis.
The really hard thing is devising the right form of regulation – the right form of regulation for financial markets, and the right form of regulation for applications on potentially vulnerable mobile networks.
Both tasks are tough. But the solution in each case surely involves greater transparency.
The creation of the Symbian Foundation is intended to advance openness in two ways:
- Providing more access to the source code;
- Providing greater visibility of the decisions and processes that guide changes in both the software platform and the management of the associated ecosystem.
This openness won’t dissolve all regulation. But it should ensure that the regulations evolve, more quickly, to something that more fully benefits the whole industry.