Last week the O’Reilly circus landed in Brussels for the 2nd European Open Source Convention, at 5 km from my doorstep. I was there.
First some lifestyle news: true alpha-geeks nowadays run Unix-based Mac OS X on their laptop. If you’re an über-alpha-geek like Damian Conway, you then use VIM – a text-based editor – on top of Mac OS X for your presentation. On the vestimentary side, form still follows function, so printed t-shirts, jeans & trainers rule, suits suck. Unless you’re the CEO of MySQL or an anti-software-patent lobbyist. Ponytails are finally on the way out. Unless you’re male.
On Tuesday, Tim O’Reilly opened the Open Source Convention with the expectedly provocative statement that open source licenses have become obsolete. The service model present in many Web 2.0 initiatives has turned software into something that is performed rather than distributed. Google, Yahoo, Salesforce.com and the like indeed don’t sell us software, they provide services. On the level playing field created by open source – and therefore by definition commoditized – software, the competitive advantage must come from network effects and operational excellence. The arrival of open APIs over the last few years has spurred development of numerous mashups that mix and repurpose various sources of open data.
Brian Suda gave a quick overview of Microformats, a set of “simple conventions for embedding semantics in HTML to enable decentralized development“. I had a “so what?” reaction at first in the sense that explicitly tagging addresses, calendar events, and other formats has been done since ancient SGML and XML times. What’s new, as I understand it, is that explicit Microformat tagging within (X)HTML or XML allows for a richer reader experience directly implemented in the web browser. The Ajax trend will only reinforce this: for example, it will become customary to highlight a tagged name and email address, and drag them directly into an address book.
Greg Stein, chairman of the Apache Software Foundation and Engineering Manager at the Google Open Source Programme Office presented Google’s involvement in open source software. Apart from organizing the Summer of Code, Google has recently launched free Project Hosting. Greg described the service as similar to tigris.org or Sourceforge.net, but simpler and easier to use. Google’s Project Hosting service is powered by Subversion, which has overtaken CVS as the version control system of choice for hackers worldwide.
In Tuesday’s keynote sessions, Steve Coast from the OpenStreetMap project completed Tim O’Reilly’s opening talk by pointing out that whereas open systems are a done deal, open data are not. He made a public appeal to the audience to go out on the streets and gather geographical data by themselves. The need for public geodata is particularly high in Europe, where taxpaying Internet entrepreneurs pay their government twice: first to have geodata collected with taxpayers’ money, and then again to buy the right of access to the data. Jo Walsh, another advocate for open geodata and present at EuroOSCON, wrote an interesting article about this issue half a year ago.
The second keynote session on Tuesday was by Adrian Holovaty from WashingtonPost.com, in his spare time lead developer of Django. He is the man behind Faces of the Fallen, ChicagoCrime.org and the US Congress Votes database, websites that make a lasting impressing on anyone who values transparency of public policy and information. Adrian Holovaty made a call to action for all hackers to practice journalism via computer programming, as he called it. More details on Adrian Holovaty’s quest for transparency can be found in this interview recorded by Robert Niles three months ago.
On Tuesday afternoon, I attended more technically oriented sessions. First, Frank Mantek from Google presented the Google Data APIs, which allow developers like you and me to access Google’s Calendar, Blogger and Base services in a programmatic way. Next, O’Reilly author Scott Davis demonstrated somewhat theatrically “how to roll your own Google Maps“.
Actual authors (like Kathy Sierra & Bert Bates) and would-be writers (like myself) then attended Mike Hendrickson’s session on Content 2.0. Mike is a publisher at O’Reilly, which means he has a say in what gets published and what not. The bottom line of his talk is that modern publishing is like agile software development: an incremental process with multiple feedback loops. Timing is essential: don’t wait until you’ve reached perfect quality, or someone else will have served your readers. Also, (book) size does matter, but contrary to popular belief, less is more: one-chapter PDF books are okay, if that’s all you have to say! When sales of an established book flatten out, why not give the book back to the community for a live, participatory update? Who gets paid for what in such a social publishing effort is one of the interesting questions that still need to be addressed, Mike Hendrickson admitted. Yet another application for micropayments?
My first day at EuroOSCON ended in La Kasbah, an enchanting Moroccan restaurant in the trendy Dansaertstraat.
Wednesday morning started off with keynote sessions by Tom Steinberg from MySociety.org and Dale Dougherty from O’Reilly Media, the maker of Make magazine. Tom Steinberg succeeded in waking me up so I also went to “Democracy: a Hacker’s Guide”, his follow-on session. MySociety.org has launched a number of technology driven projects in the UK that help bridge the gap between citizens and their elected representatives. Whereas TheyWorkForYou.com focuses on aggregating, reorganizing and republishing public information, sites like WriteToThem.com and HearFromYourMP.com promote an intelligently filtered information flow between the electorate and their representatives, from the local up to the national level. PledgeBank.com makes it easy for altruistic volunteers to find one another, so that they can do some Good Deed to the benefit of society as a whole. In his talk, Tom Steinberg gave the hackers in the audience a number of (mostly non-technical) hints on how to launch similar services in their respective home countries. In Belgium, GovCamp may be a good start, although it does not look much like a grassroots initiative, as it is “initiated by the Belgian Federal Government” (!).
Denise Kalos, VP Corporate Solutions at O’Reilly and Andrew Kelly, Practice Manager at CollabNet then presented “The Secret Sauce of Robust Developer Communities”. As consultants to the corporate world (e.g. BEA Systems), the speakers stressed the need to find a right balance between community building on the one hand and achieving the business goals on the other hand. The very reason why corporations like BEA ask third parties to build their communities is credibility. If the community gives too little to the member developers in terms of recognition, resources, or exposure, it won’t get anything useful in return either. There’s a fine line between helping out developers with new products, and selling. Building a developer community must not be a marketing exercise, and needs to be done with care. In the end, it’s all about people & passion.
Wednesday’s keynote session speakers Jim Purbrick from Linden Lab (the makers of Second Life) and Mårten Mickos, CEO of MySQL AB could not really captivate me. I don’t blame them, maybe it was a matter of overstimulation. I did learn a new term, though: meat space as opposed to cyber space. And Mårten Mickos taught us that when a Finnish guy says “that’s not too bad”, it means exactly the same as “that’s fantastic!” uttered by an American.
The prize for the worst talk went to the CEO of Wengo, I’m afraid. For Google’s sake, I won’t mention his name in this place. His Famous First Words were: “I hope it’s not going to be too boring”. Now that’s a captatio benevolentiae! In the rest of the talk, which was indeed rather dull, the speaker succeeded in apologizing twice more: first for not being a technician – as if that would have made a difference – and second for his insufficient mastery of the English language – although his English was in fact more than okay. Dear Wengo CEO, we don’t know each other, but if you read this, no hard feelings please.
To make up for this false note, I decided to visit the Make Fest that evening with my 9 year old daughter. She was interested in a stringless guitar and tried on some presence-detecting sensors. Most importantly, she went home with a free OpenBSD poster featuring deformed versions of Asterix and Obelix.
On Thursday, Robert “r0ml” Lefkowitz tried to shock the non English speaking part of his audience with his plea for the abolition of English as the (only) lingua franca for developers … and compilers. If his intention was to make his fellow American listeners more aware of internationalization and localization issues, he could have made a point. Some not-so-humorous Europeans went into a discussion with the speaker, only to realize that he was just joking, after all. At least that’s how I interpreted it.
Chris Heathcote, an English designer who works for Nokia in Finland, referred to numerous sources that warn us against unwanted invasion of our privacy. His main conclusion was that people who want to play along in the information society are forced to trade in a part of their privacy. Privacy becomes a luxury, because most consumers can’t afford not to take a loyalty card in their supermarket. It’s amazing what people will give up for some convenience.
The last session I attended was by Colin Brumelle on Music 2.0. In his short historic overview of new recording technologies since the 19th century, the speaker argued that each innovation had been accused of “killing music” in one way or another by the industry people then in power. Our time is no different in that respect. Although everyone in the audience agreed that the current power structures in the music business are deemed to collapse, no one, including the speaker, was able to lay out how and when. The speaker raised many questions but did not really try to answer them. In that sense the talk was a bit disappointing.
More than any specific technological innovation, the potential impact of technology on society was what really struck me in this Open Source Convention. For that reason alone, Adrian Holovaty and Tom Steinberg were my favourite speakers.