The second Open Source Developer’s Conference, held in Melbourne this week, can be most simply described as a massive geek-fest.

It’s probably unfair to compare it to the Web Essentials conference that I attended earlier this year, because OSDC is – in the organizers’ words – “created by developers, for developers” whereas Web Essentials has less of a grass-roots base.

But I’m going to make the comparison anyway, as I think it does provide a useful measuring stick. As far as I could tell, OSDC differed from Web Essentials in five aspects:

  1. speakers were not paid. This meant that the presentations varied wildly in terms of quality and relevance. There were a number of excellent presentations that appealed to the entire audience, but there were also quite a few talks that were amateurish and about completely obscure topics that would only interest a handful of people.
  2. presentations were much shorter. Apart from a 60-minute keynote presentation at the beginning and end of each day, all talks were only half an hour long. The more experienced speakers made good use of this limited time, but for some speakers it resulted in their 73 slides being whizzed through far too quickly for anyone to digest.
  3. the variety of topics and industry representation was mind-boggling. The broad umbrella of ‘open source’ was the only common thread linking all presentations, and this resulted in topics ranging from doctorate research papers to entrepeneurial advice to snapshots of large-scale government projects to corporate sales pitches.
  4. three streams, instead of two. Unfortunately this meant that occasionally there were three topics that interested me and only one that I could attend.
  5. less innovation, more unashamed geekiness. WE05 was exciting to be a part of because of all the new technologies and new ways of thinking that were presented. Microformats, AJAX, user-centred design, innovative ways to make web pages accessible – all these topics were introduced by the people who either invented them or were the most proficient in the world at applying them. We were hearing the latest and the greatest from the forward thinkers responsible for advancing the medium of choice for everyone in the room – the web. OSDC presenters on the other hand, were passionate about their area of expertise, but there wasn’t a common medium for everyone to get excited about other than “being a geek” and “free software”.

That said, it was a worthwhile three days with plenty of topics relevant for web professionals. Here were some of the highlights for me.

  • Jon Oxer’s opening presentation about how easy it is to connect random bits of hardware to your PC and talk to them using C, PHP or whatever language you fancy. I haven’t decided whether the coolest part of his talk was his demonstration of how his letter box sends him email (and a text message to his phone) when the postman delivers his mail, or the fact that his cat has been injected with a microchip that opens his cat flap.
  • Paul Fenwick’s entertaining tips for giving a good presentation, which included using a Perl module to echo pre-prepared characters to the screen regardless of what keys you press, so that you don’t make any mistakes when giving a live demo.
  • Scott Penrose’s talk about the ambitious project he calls Zaltana, where he has added HTML hooks to the templates of common web applications such as SquirrelMail, MediaWiki and other custom objects and methods in order to provide a common look and feel across the whole framework for his clients that is reusable.
  • Gus Gollings’ discussion of the Semantic Web. This was a different (less technical) take on the concept than I had heard in the past. Gus provided a rich historical context and posed some thought-provoking questions about what might be one day achievable, and anything that gets me thinking about the future always captures my interest.
  • SitePoint’s own Kevin Yank‘s talk about Mozilla XForms (watch Kev’s blog for more on this soon).
  • Luce Chandon’s description of how open source software and the concept of “agents” was used at a Ford manufacturing plant to ensure motor vehicle parts were delivered to the assembly line in a just-in-time fashion.
  • The “Lightning Talk” sessions (nothing to do with the miserable weather outside) where interested attendees gave a 5 minute presentation about whatever they liked. The preparation that went into some of these snappy talks was incredible and it was a good, encouraging environment for those new to public speaking to give it a go.

In summary, OSDC is a professionally-run conference that represents good value for money if you are a web professional, but even more so if you are an enthusiastic Perl/PHP programmer who wears a red hat everywhere, has named his first son Linus and has a Slashdot ID of three digits or less.

The networking aspect was also good and I met some terrific folks, many of whom are involved in the various user groups active around Melbourne and Australia, and some who travelled all the way from Japan, Taiwan and elsewhere for the conference.

However, it was a conference that required you to pick the sessions you attended very carefully, as both the speaker’s presentation skills and the relevance of the content varied (sometimes significantly from the talk’s title).

Credit to the organizers for running things so smoothly. I’ll be back next year!

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