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October 14, 2008

Thoughts on FOWA

I spent Thursday and Friday last week at the Future of Web Apps Expo (FOWA) in London, a pretty good event overall in retrospect and certainly one that left me with a lot to think about.  I'm not going to write up any of the individual talks in any kind of detail - videos of all the talks are now available, as is my (lo-fat) live-blogging from the event - but I do want to touch on several thoughts that occurred to me while I was there.

Firstly, the somewhat mundane issue of wireless access at conferences...  I say mundane because one might expect that providing wireless access to conference delegates should have become pretty much routine by now - a bit like making sure that tea and coffee are available?  But that didn't seem to be the case at this event.  My (completely unscientific and non-exhaustive) experience was that everyone with a Mac in the venue had no trouble with the wifi network but that everyone with a PC seemed to have little or no connectivity.  (Actually, that's not quite true, I did find one person with a PC laptop who had no problem using the wifi).  Whatever... my poor little brand new EeePC didn't get on the network for any significant period of time at any point in the two days :-(

P1070969So, OK, we all know that Macs are better than PCs in every way but I was amazed at the stark difference that seemed to be in evidence during this particular event.

The lack of wifi connectivity was of particular annoyance to yours truly, since I was hoping to live-blog the whole event.  In the end, I used the mobile interface to Coveritlive via my iPhone over a 3G connection to cover some of the sessions - not an easy thing to do given the soft-keyboard but actually an interesting experiment in what is possible with mobile technology these days.  By day 2 of the conference my typing on the soft-keyboard was getting pretty good - though not always very accurate.

The conference had quite a young and entrepreneurial feel to it - I'm not saying that everyone there was under 30 but there were a lot of aspects to the style of the conference that were in stark contrast to the rather more... err... traditional feel of many 'academic' conferences.  I don't want to argue that age and attitude are necessarily linked (for obvious reasons) but the entrepreneurial thing is particularly interesting I think because it is something that has a non-obvious fit with how things happen in education.  Being an entrepreneur is about taking risks - risks with money more than anything I guess.  I don't quite know how this translates into the academic space but my gut feeling is that it would be worth thinking about.  Note that I'm not thinking about money here - I'm thinking about attitude.  What I suppose I mean is our ability to break out of a conservative approach to things - our ability to overcome the inertia associated with how things have been done in the past.

I realise that there are plenty of startups in the education space - Huddle springs to mind as a good current example of a company that seems to have the potential to cross the education/enterprise divide - my concern is more about what happens inside educational institutions.  A 24 year-old can run the world's biggest social network yet we don't see similar things happening in education... do we?  Calling all 24 year old directors of university computing services...

Is that something we should worry about?  Is it something we should applaud?  Does it matter?  Is it an inevitable consequence of the kinds of institutions we find in education?

Funding by JISC, Eduserv and the like should be about encouraging an entrepreneurial approach to the use of ICT in education but I'm not sure it fully succeeds in doing that.  Project funding is by its nature a largely low risk activity - except at the transition points between funding.  There are exceptions of course - there are people that I would say are definitely educational entrepreneurs (in the attitude sense) but they tend to be the exception rather than the rule overall and even where they exist I think it is very difficult for them to have a significant impact on wider practice.

The entrepreneurial theme came out strongly in several sessions. Tim Bray's keynote for example, my favorite talk of the conference, where he focused on what startups need to do to react to the current economic climate.  And in a somewhat contrived debate about 'work-life balance' where Jason Calacanis argued that "it's ok to be average but not in my company" - ever heard that in the education sector?  I'm not saying that his was the right attitude, and to a large extent he was playing devil's advocate anyway, but these are the kinds of issues that we tend to be pretty shy about even discussing in education.

Unfortunately, the whole entrepreneurial thing brings with it a less positive facet, in that there tends to be a "it's not what you know, but who you know" kind of attitude.  This comes out both face-to-face (people looking over your shoulder for a more interesting person to talk to - yes, I know I'm a boring git, thank you!) and in people's use of social networks.  The people I'd unfollow first on Twitter are those who spend the most time tweeting who they are meeting up with next. Yawn.

Much of FOWA was split into two parallel tracks - a developer track and a business track.  I spent most time in the former.  Overall I was slightly disappointed with this track and found the talks that I went to in the business track slightly better.  It's not that there weren't a lot of good talks in the developer track - just that they didn't seem like good developer talks.  My take was that many of them would have been more appropriate for managers who wanted to get up to speed on the latest technology-related issues and thinking.  It didn't seem to me that real developers (of which I'm not one) would have got much from many of those talks - they were too superficial or something.

Now, clearly, running a developer track aimed at 700-odd delegates is not an easy task - I certainly wouldn't be able to do any better - but more than anything you've got to try and inspire people to go away and learn about and deploy new technology, not try and teach it directly during the conference.  For whatever reason, it didn't feel like there was much really new technological stuff to get inspired about.  This is not the conference organiser's fault - just timing I guess.  The business track on the other hand had plenty to focus on, given the current economic climate.

As you'd expect, there was also a lot about the cloud over the two days.  Most of it positive... but interestingly (to me, since it was the first time I'd heard something like this) there was an impassioned plea from the floor (during the joint important bits of cloud computing slot by Jeff Barr and Tony Lucas) for consumers of cloud computing to band together in order to put pressure on suppliers for better terms and conditions, prices, and the like.

Overall then... FOWA was a different kind of event to those I normally attend and to be honest it was a very last-minute decision to go at all but I did so because there were some interesting looking speakers that I wanted to see.  It wasn't a total success (hey, what is!?) but on balance I'm really glad I went and I got a lot out of it.

P1070970Two final mini-thoughts...

Firstly, virtual economies came up a couple of times.  Once in the Techcrunch Pitch at the end of the first day, where one of the panel (sorry, I forget who) suggested that virtual economies would increasingly replace subscriptions as the way services are supported.  I think he was referring to services outside the virtual world space where these kinds of economies are regularly found - Second Life being the best known example of a virtual world economy - though I must confess that I don't really understand how it might work in other contexts.  Then again in Tim Bray's talk where he noted the sales of iPhone applications at very low unit costs (e.g. 59p a time) - a model that will become increasingly sustainable and profitable because of the growing size of the mobile market.  (I appreciate that these two aren't quite the same - but think they are close enough to be of passing interest).

Secondly, I had my first chance to play on a Microsoft Surface - a kind of table-sized iPhone multi-user touch interface.  These things are beautiful to watch and interact with, and the ability to almost literally touch digital content is amazing, with obvious possibilities in the education and cultural sectors, as well as elsewhere.  Costs are prohibitive at the moment of course - but that will no doubt change.  I can't wait!

P1070972 And finally... to that Mark Zuckerberg interview at the end of day 2.  I really enjoyed it actually.  Despite being well rehearsed and choreographed I thought he came across very well.  He certainly made all the right kinds of noises about making Facebook more open though whether it is believable or not remains to be seen!

It's easy to knock successful people - particularly ones so young.  But at the end of the day I suspect that many of us simply wish we could achieve half as much!?


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thanks Andy - interesting review.

I have a kinds boring point to make but I guess it needs saying....

If entrepreneurship is about taking risks, usually with money, then the issue of 'whose money?' springs to mind. A startup with VC money will be expected to pass 'due diligence' criteria set by the invester. A university is answerable, ultimately, to the tax payer.

Venture capitalism is a high-risk, high potential return endeavour. I can't quite see HEFCE (or for that matter, the average tax-payer) seeing investment in HE in those terms.

Having said that, I think you're right to point up the contrast in eventual results (although let's not forget the enterpeneurs who would have been at FOWA if only they weren't bankrupt and out of the game!).

How can we be less conservative in HE while satisfying the taxpayers 'due-diligence' criteria?

Wondering if a comparable 'due dilligence' is really carried out by HEFCE and other funding bodies *before* funding is awarded as opposed to being conducted at the 'evaluation' stage of a project after which the majority of the money has been spent.

It would be good to see areas such as sustainability addressed and clarified from the outset (may be none and just an R&D activity) as well as the handling of any potential returns (other than spinning out successes as a company can a University 'handle' and account for a return?) before any funding was awarded to create a similar environment to the commercial world.

Another approach could be to put more accountability at the programme management level rather than devolve to the project management level to encourage entrepreneurship from the funding bodies in a simliar manner to VCs?

I think we probably carry out too much due-diligence before awarding funding and this in itself can prevent us from being innovative / entrepreneurial. I dream of more flexible approaches to programmes / calls / development :-)

Learning from our lessons through post programme evaluation?? Hmm, I think we probably have some way to go before these lessons actually change the way JISC works.

Currently at Internet2 where the wireless access is quick, faultless and I even managed to demo NewsFilmOnline over it! How is this possible in a Sheraton hotel in New Orleans but not possible in one of London's core conference venues??

@Paul and @James. Thanks for the comments so far. As I mentioned on Twitter, I'm not sure that I've got my thinking straight on the 'entrepreneurial' issue. I agree with Paul on the 'whose money is it anyway' issue - I think that does constrain us in all sorts of ways - some of which is good, some bad. I'm certainly not suggesting that universities should treat their sources of income like venture capital. What I did sense though was that there was a feel at FOWA that was different to, let's say, ALT-C (to pick randomly on an academic conference that I've been to recently). I'd like to see some of that feel, that attitude if you like, coming over more into education - because if it did then I suspect it would drive up the quality of some of the things we develop.

@Nicole - as I said, there was something weird happening with the wifi at FOWA that I can't explain. The conference had something like 1500 delegates overall and a pretty high proportion had laptops (the vast majority Macs) as far as I could tell. I heard a rumour that by the end of the first day, something like 900 delegates were able to connect over the wifi - which, if true, is pretty impressive. But I strongly suspect that equated to about 850 Mac users and 50 PC users. Now, admittedly, that's a complete finger in the air job, but it is based on what I saw going on around me and the relatively few people I spoke to. Even my iPhone (which is, after all, Apple hardware) was unable to make use of the wifi in any kind of reliable way. So whatever wifi technology Apple built into the Mac was definitely worth having!

Note that the work/life balance session video is now available at: http://events.carsonified.com/fowa/2008/london/videos/jason-calcanis-tom-nixon/

PS: to whoever decided to have the people offering back and head massages at the event - thank you. It was an inspired choice. Here's a quick plug for Heaven Sent Nation - http://www.heavensentnation.com/

I made a brief comment via Twitter, but my initial thought on the entrepreneurial stuff was the same as Paul's - whose money are you risking?

However, after reading the piece tweeted by @dmje (http://tinyurl.com/6gluwt) which was apparently referenced at FOWA, it made me think - it really isn't about money. I think the kind of entrepreneurs you are talking about are doing something they really love - and the fact they can persuade VCs to give them money to do it is what makes it possible.

In HE we clearly have innovators - it is, in some ways, the job of a researcher to innovate. However, at a managerial level this is not the case. I don't think this is unique to HE - it seems unlikely to me Mark Zuckerberg would be where he is if he'd started off in IBM or MS - again, there is no doubt that there are many innovators within these companies, but I'm not sure you would describe the companies themselves as innovative.

I'm meandering a bit, but I think some key points, to foster innovation you need:

Enthusiastic individuals doing things they really believe in and enjoy (the innovators) Funders who take calculated risks (and can afford to write off some level of failure?) (the risk takers) An environment in which the innovators have a large degree of freedom, and the risk takers believe they are likely to see a return on their investment

I suspect in the admin/service side of HE (and other large organisations) we get the first to some extent (although again, not in management generally), the second not so much (failure not seen as so acceptable to funders - especially in the Public Sector), and the third to the least extent.

If we want to look at how we might change this, I'd suggest we need to look to the example set by (who else) Google, rather than startups. Can we give a percentage of time to our staff to work on their own projects? If not, what can we do to promote innovation?

These last two questions are ones that I'm currently looking at. I don't think that I'm going to be able to give staff 20% of their time to work on personal projects, but I do think I can do some things to encourage this kind of approach - and I hope to do so.

@Owen - just to re-iterate what I said in the original post, "note that I'm not thinking about money here - I'm thinking about attitude". So, yes... I agree with everything you say above. I'll be interested in hearing about how you get on...

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