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Notes on the Future of Web Apps: mobile web, scalability, Zoho, Microsoft

A few notes on the first day at the Future of Web Apps conference in London. These are supplementary to my posts yesterday.

Heidi Pollock of Bluepulse spoke on mobile web apps. This was a depressing session, through no fault of Pollock. She explained how to keep to the compatible set of HTML and CSS markup that works on most mobiles, but acknowledged that even this will not work well for all users. Apparently CSS support is disabled by default on Blackberry devices, for example. She also noted that most mobile web users were either in urgent need of information, or bored. A reminder that the mobile web still falls a long way short of its potential.

Microsoft’s Mark Quirk gave a demo of 10 things developers can do for free on Microsoft’s platform. This is a tough crowd for the company. We were shown the complete works of Charles Dickens on a single page, then zooming in to read the text. Great demo, but no applause. Why? Because it’s Microsoft, and the average attendee here carries a Mac and develops on an open source stack.

Zoho gave a sparsely-attended demo of its online application suite. It seems very capable; yet I get the impression that Zoho is losing the battle for attention. Possibly its products do too much, at the expense of usability. I am reminded of Om Malik’s comment yesterday, on web apps that “don’t address the principle of fixing someone’s pain point… a lot just do too much and it’s not clear who they are for”.

Steve Souders from Yahoo spoke on performance. He says to fix the front-end; in most cases the bottleneck is not in the database or server-side algorithms. He has a great collection of tips for speeding the performance of web pages. The crowd was impressed and I’m told that copies of his book were being snapped up on the bookstall afterwards.

Matt Mullenweg talked about the architecture of WordPress.com. He does a good job of de-mystifying scalability. Apparently his site is now somewhere around the 20th most visited in the USA, but runs on relatively modest hardware. His three “magic tools”: Pound (load balancer), Wackamole (manages IP addresses for a cluster) and Spread (messaging). He also uses MySQL in master/slave configuration. Another point of interest – everything is in Subversion, even kernels. Favourite quote: “Spam is the Achilles heel of Web 2.0.” Slides are here.

I interviewed Mullenweg and will post a link in due course.

Best of show so far? John Resig on the future of FireFox. He’s now posted his slides; see also my comments.