Web Developers, Entrepreneurs Meet at FOWA Despite Crisis

These days, an appropriate title for a novel about the future of Web applications could be "Love in the Time of Cholera," what with the slowdown in online advertising, the reticence of venture capitalists and the shrinking technology budgets.

However, with the hope and tenacity of the hero of Gabriel Garcia Marquez's book, optimistic developers and entrepreneurs are gathering in Miami for Carsonified's Future of Web Apps (FOWA) conference, which runs Monday and Tuesday.

The economy may be in shambles, and pundits are predicting the imminent collapse of the Web 2.0 era, but Farhan Ahmad isn't giving up on ShopFiber, the startup he co-founded in Michigan four months ago.

At FOWA, Ahmad expects to not only network and catch up on business and technology trends, but also to give out invitations to the private beta of ShopFiber, a social shopping Web application that lets people research and share product information.

Asked whether he's worried about the economic climate and its effect on Internet startups, Ahmad puts a positive spin on the situation. "Right now, there aren't very many new [Internet] companies coming out so there's less noise and you can get more attention. That's definitely one advantage," he said by phone on Friday.

More established companies that are also betting big on the future of Web applications will be there, like Atlantic Dominion Solutions. Founded in 2000, the Orlando company builds custom Web applications for companies and is developing its own suite of hosted business software.

CEO Robert Dempsey is optimistic about Web applications for the workplace, in part because of their potentially lower cost over conventional, on-premise software. A former network administrator and IT consultant, he's very aware of the costs involved in software licenses, hardware provisioning, user training and IT staffing required by traditional in-house software deployments.

He's hoping the conference makes good on its title and gives him a vision of what's coming for Web apps. "For someone like me who owns a Web development shop, it's absolutely necessary to stay up on not only the latest technologies but also on where things are headed," Dempsey said by phone on Friday.

"Tech changes so much on a day-to-day basis, so it's important to be constantly learning from other people, seeing what they're doing and how we can improve what we do," he added.

Industry analyst Greg Sterling from Sterling Market Intelligence sees a bright future for Web applications clouded by a lot of current uncertainty. "It's hard to be positive about anything given the economy right now," Sterling said.

Still, there seems to be no turning back the trend of SaaS (software-as-a-service) for business software, he said, pointing out that even traditional providers like IBM and Microsoft are busy re-tooling their products to take advantage of the Web-hosted delivery method.

For entrepreneurs building Web applications for the consumer market, investor funding is still there, although not as abundant as, say, two years ago, and mostly reserved to companies that have proven themselves, he said. In addition, as online ad revenue contracts, providers of consumer Web apps are experimenting with other models, like subscription fees, he said.

"Web applications have the force of inevitability now," Sterling said.

In fact, two developers in Tel Aviv, Israel, lacking the money to make the expensive trip to Miami, took that as an opportunity, instead of as a roadblock, and months ago launched a fund-raising site called Gotta Get To FOWA.

The cleverly designed site offered visitors a variety of ways to help Naor Suky and Adam Tal, co-founders of InternetLife travel to Miami. In addition to sponsoring them with direct donations, people could download a song they wrote about FOWA for $1.99 a pop or link to some third-party special offers for which they got referral commissions.

While Suky and Tal didn't raise the necessary funds in time to make it to FOWA in Miami, the site led to business opportunities.

"This is one of the first projects we made for ourselves -- not for a client -- so we had the freedom to be as creative as we like, both in terms of concept and business model. The first thing we learned was that being creative pays off. We got lots of job offers and two projects from people who liked the idea and the way we executed it," they said via e-mail this past weekend.

"The attention we got, the connections we made, and business lessons we learned were priceless, and I'm sure our next adventure will benefit much from what we learned. We're now looking in to ways of making the site helpful for other people wanting to attend FOWA events, which we believe are very important for young designers and developers," they added.

While disappointed they couldn't come to the conference's Miami edition, Suky and Tal are still raising travel funds and hoping they'll be able to go to the next FOWA conference, happening in London on April 30 and May 1st.

In Miami, Monday will be devoted in its entirety to workshops, including "How to build a Web app from A-Z" by Mike McDerment, co-founder and CEO of FreshBooks and "Implementing the Social Web with OpenID, OAuth and All That Jazz" by David Recordon, Six Apart's Open Platforms tech lead.

On Tuesday, conference presentations will include discussions about the future of the Web browser, how to build a tech team and best practices for branding. Speakers will include Ben Galbraith, co-director of developer tools at Mozilla, Dave Morin, senior platform manager at Facebook and Jason Fried, co-founder and president of 37Signals.

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