It’s Web 2.0 week once again in San Francisco, and there are a handful of hopeful new startups that deserve some attention. While the conference itself has been losing steam over the last couple of years, there were moments when the conference felt like its old self.
Perhaps the most interesting part of the conference is Tim O’Reilly’s essay on the state of internet operating systems, which he spoke to at some length at this morning's keynote. Like everything by O’Reilly, it’s a well thought-out, intelligently written and comprehensive look at the underlying platforms powering much of the Web, including views and predictions on Google, Apple, Microsoft, Amazon and newcomer Facebook. Originally a blog post, O’Reilly Media printed it for distribution at the conference and, together with this morning's speech, it was the most compelling content at the event. It’s a must-read.
The other compelling piece of content was the main stage interview by O'Reilly Media's Brady Forrest of Adobe CTO Kevin Lynch at yesterday morning's keynote session. Given the escalating drama involving Apple’s well-publicized snub of Flash and the ensuing anti-trust rumblings emanating from Washington, DC, everyone in the room was anxious to hear Lynch’s thoughts. Happily, he delivered.
“We’re facing a time now,” said Lynch “where there are some who would like to wall off parts of the Web and make it so that you need their approval to make content and applications. From Adobe’s point of view, we don’t express judgment on what people make. I don’t think it’s the role of a company to exercise that judgment on what people are making. That’s the role of society and law.”
When Forrest asked if he was referring to Apple, Lynch emphatically replied: “Yes.” In his most pointed rebuke, Lynch invoked Apple’s famous “1984″ ad, in which a young, lithe athlete takes down big brother. Apple’s rejection of Flash for its new iPad and the iPhone is bad for the internet, he said, and is “like 1984 in a lot of ways.”
Forrest asked about the rise of HTML5 — the most current way to build websites, and which enables the playing of videos without the use of, say, Flash — Lynch said Adobe would build best-in-class tools for HTML5.
“It’s not about HTML5 versus Flash,” Lynch said. “They’re mutually beneficial. The more important question is the freedom of choice on the Web.”
In addition to the usual host of established players featured throughout the conference — including Adobe, Microsoft, Cisco, IBM and HP — the conference is always careful to carve out space on the Expo floor (the Long-Tail Pavilion) and on its main stage (Launch Pad) to highlight those working on the next big thing. A few caught my eye.
Both in the Launch Pad presentation and the Long-Tail Pavilion, there were new companies focused on helping people engage in social curation on the Web. Though each has its own approach, Strings, PearlTrees and MyWEBoo have one thing in common: organizing the vast array of content one contributes to and encounters across the Web every single day. Whether you publish photos on Facebook or Flickr, videos on YouTube or Yahoo!, or share articles you like on Twitter or LinkedIn, these new services help you to aggregate that content in a single location, which you can then organize. The social piece comes into play when you share what you’ve curated with your friends and invite them to add their own curatorial contributions to your efforts. Some enable you to take what you’ve curated and publish it in a neat package on your blog; others provide a location on their websites highlighting your collections. As people increasingly understand what it means to be a curator, services such as these could play an important role enabling the activity.
Crowd-sourcing is another area where start-ups are continuing to innovate. CrowdFlower, imomou, and askyourtargetmarket.com help companies and individuals use the wisdom of crowds to drive decision-making. Both CrowdFlower and AskYourTargetMarket layer in interesting helpful control measures to ensure the crowds you’re tapping into aren’t in some way rigged or flawed, improving on some earlier stabs at just-in-time crowd-sourcing services.
At Launch Pad, the start-up that won the audience’s “applause-o-meter” was Rhomobile, an open framework for fast development of cross-platform mobile applications. Essentially, app developers can “build once, deploy many” using Rhomobile. The “many” include iPhone, BlackBerry, Windows Mobile, Symbian and Android smart phone operating systems. App development is huge — witness Apple’s App Store and Google’s growing version of it. But developers face significant pain developing the same app for these disparate operating systems. Rhomobile solves the problem simply, elegantly and at reasonable costs. This little start-up seems to have a bright future.
There are many other notable start-ups, of course, and the established players are also doing their bit to advance various states of art. Adobe was showing off an Android-powered tablet prototype at its booth demonstrating how beautifully Adobe Air and Flash work, in addition to the many smart phones that fluidly incorporate Adobe-powered features. At Microsoft’s booth, Razorfish was showing off a slick application of Microsoft’s 2-D bar code technology (also called QR Code) that it originally built for this year’s South-by-Southwest Interactive Festival.
One other stand-out is Parrott, a French company that wins my award for best iPhone-powered toy ever. They showed off their new augmented reality drone on the main stage and in the hallways, which is controlled via WiFi from your iPhone. Using the accelerometer feature, the Parrot drone is activated, achieves lift-off and flies around by using your iPhone like a steering wheel. It was an awesome demo. There wasn’t a dry eye in the house.
All of which is proof that Silicon Valley (and its French cousin) is as interesting and exciting as ever, even if the conference that claims to represent it is a little less so.