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SXSW 2006 – It’s a wrap!

By Ian Lloyd

It’s final day out here in Austin’s SXSW festival (or at least the final part of the interactive portion) and for the first time since coming here four years ago I’m actually finding myself ready to go home. It’s true that it really is a party town here, and especially when so many web geeks descend on the place as they do, but there’s something to be said for having the occassional bit of sleep!

This morning, there were more than a few people who also appeared to be flagging somewhat – last night’s Blogger and Adaptive Path sponsored events looked to have taken their toll somewhat. Regardless, the seminar rooms were still heaving with people wanting to learn more web-related stuff.

Once more I played the guessing game about what panels to attend and kicked off the day with the session about Web Standards, or to give it its proper title ‘Convince Your Company to Embrace Standards‘. This was of particular interest to me because I had tried to do exactly that some years ago and now find myself in the lucky position of working alongside a group of people who really do ‘get it’ (although it’s not perfect, before you go running it through the validator!). The panelists were from names that carried weight too, such as AOL and Netscape. What? Standards? And AOL? And Netscape?! Yes, it’s true. AOL does have some very good people working for them (try going to the home page and resizing the text up a couple of notches and you can see that there are some smart cookies working there, and I don’t mean cookies as in JavaScript!); from Netscape’s point of view, you have to remember that they were the people who held up their hands and said "OK, Netscape 4 sucks, we’re gonna kill it and start over". How different things could have been had that not happened.

As I expected, there were quite a lot of pieces of advice that were not new to me and many of the audience – preaching to the choir and all that. I was interested to hear of one story regarding a meeting with AOL execs whereby a blind user demonstrated various sections of AOL’s website using a screen reader. That was "accessibility day 1" for AOL, and really got the buy-in where it was needed, and it mirrored exactly my experience at Nationwide a few years back. In short, that embarrasment technique flat-out works! It’s key to make sure that when selling web standards to the sponsors, whoever they may be, that you don’t sell web standards per se – you sell them the benefits. In other words, don’t tell them you’re going to use cool technology x to do something, you tell them what you can achieve and then tell them how you can achieve those aims. CSS Zen Garden was once again highlighted as a key tool to explain the methodology of proper coding but what I was pleased to see was an example of Zen Gardenifying (their phrase!) an existing AOL page. Often people who don’t understand CSS don’t really appreciate quite how fundamental switching a reference to a style sheet is when it’s not a site that they recognise, but to see the same effect on a page they know – and the example was an AOL login page – really brings it home.

I then attended the ‘Designing the Next Generation of Web Apps‘ in which the likes of Flickr, various blogging systems and visualisation tools were discussed and/or demonstrated. There were some truly amazing things being demonstrated by Eric Rodenbeck from Stamen Design on the visualisation front including a funky-looking IRC back channel, er, visualisation and cabspotting. The audience were treated to some sneak previews of changes to Flickr, which were no doubt caught by some members in the audience and then immediately uploaded to their Flickr account. Perfect! There was much talk about the rapid rate of development on these kinds of applications and what the best way is to run them (quote on one of the slides read: "Writely has had more releases than Microsoft Word has had in a decade"). To my mind, though, there was too much focus on just a few web applications and not enough talk about what other stuff might be around the corner. But then I can also understand why this is so – no-one is going to jeopardise their future by revealing their big idea in front of an audience like this.

In the afternoon I made my way over to ‘RSS: Not Just for Blogs Anymore‘ session and I learnt one thing here: that is that I really don’t know RSS! My understanding of RSS is much like the title aludes to – a way of subscribing to site updates or comments on a blog and such like, and I was therefore keen to learn more. The problem I had was one of skill level. The presenters and the audience were obviously up there somewhere and I was somewhere down there and just couldn’t get the concepts. There were so many examples of RSS hacks and cool ways of doing things that I wasn’t really sure what this beast actually is. It seemed like there were potentially hundreds of different ways of using it, be that a simple site update notification (that I was used to) to calendar-sharing methods, bulletin boards, content management and more. So I stopped taking notes and instead vowed to go back to RSS school and try to bridge the gap between my knowledge and theirs. Tellingly I could see a quote on someone’s laptop screen in front of me that read: "If you know RSS you’re already too late." It spoke volumes. For those reading this that do want to find some of the examples discussed, Adina Levin has created a page with them all on.

So that was pretty much it for me at South By Southwest, I skipped the final presentation of the day (Bruce Sterling’s traditional wrap-up) which I’m no doubt going to be told was excellent, the funniest one ever and involved everyone being given a tonne of free stuff, but hey ho, I had a column to write before once more battling my way through Austin’s buzzing nightlife.

It was a blast from start to finish, as I expected it would be, but in some ways more so than I would like. It has gone from "scary to scarier" in terms of numbers (and that was the organiser’s phrase right there) and I don’t know how much more it can scale up without some changes. I don’t have the solution, but I mention it as an observer who’s witnessed its increasingly rapid growth. I still think it’s the best web conference on offer and highly recommend it, just expect it to be a crush at times. And with that I’m off to unwind for one last evening. Night y’all.

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