Sunday, March 20, 2005

Remixing ETech 2005

I just got back from the O'Reilly Emerging Technology Conference (ETech). It was an interesting experience. There were a lot of interesting speakers, including well known people like Daniel Hillis, Jeff Bezos, Cory Doctorow, Neil Gershenfeld, Joel Spolsky, Lee Felsenstein, and Lawrence Lessig. The theme of the conference was the idea of "remixing", the "mass amateurization of technology: the hardware hacks, software tweaks, and network combinatorics coming from the citizen engineers and inventors, networks of wily geeks and grassroots efforts within large companies".

During the conference there was a lot of talk about certain web sites. Flickr is a photo sharing site. is a link sharing site, the start of mine is at Both of them use "tags" to "categorize" their content.

Jimmy Wales talked about Wikipedia - a free encyclopedia that has been wildly successful. They just passed 500,000 articles in English (compared with Britannica's 80,000 and Encarta's 4,500!) And they just passed the New York Times web site in traffic!

Not all the sessions were great. One that bombed was a session called "Building Applications Without Software" by Adam Gross from It was in a smaller room, but it ended up packed, there were people standing at the back and overflowing out the door. Jeff Bezos (Amazon) was a few seats down from me. Who wouldn't want to hear about how to build applications without software? What a disappointment! First, don't send a salesman to talk to techies, it doesn't go over very well. (Just as sending a techie to talk to suits probably wouldn't work.) When he could get beyond his company sales pitch what he showed us was how you could add user defined fields to their application. As you can imagine, it didn't take long for the audience (including me) to leave for somewhere more interesting.

Apple laptops were definitely "in" with attendees. I would guess Apples made up over half of the laptops there - a lot more than their 2 or 3% market share would predict.

I was a bit shocked by people's laptop use during the sessions. Why would you pay good money and valuable time to attend a conference with great speakers and then spend the sessions emailing and chatting instead of listening? Not to mention, it seems pretty rude to the speakers. And this wasn't just a few exceptions - I'd guess over half the audience were heads down in their laptops.

Jason Fried from 37signals talked about "Lessons Learned While Building Basecamp". Basically he recommended agile development. Reading agile books and going to agile conferences, it's easy to start thinking that agile is mainstream but it was obvious from peoples' reactions that there are still a lot of non-believers out there. The questions from the audience reflected disbelief, resistance, and even a certain degree of hostility. To me it seemed mostly pretty standard stuff - release early and often, start simple, don't do big up front design, get the right people. A few of his points were more interesting - obsess over aesthetics, embrace constraints, and design from the user interface first. They just released Ta-da List - a free to do list web application.

O'Reilly introduced their new quarterly Make magazine and held a "Maker Fair" - a kind of science fair for grownups with a lot of weird and wonderful projects and demos.

I came away from the conference all fired up, full of optimism, and excited. Getting back to the office to wade through 800 emails (99% spam) and to face the usual array of problems and issues put a damper on my mood, but I'm sure I'll rebound :-)

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