The Next Web Conference – April 2009

Last week I attended the Next Web Conference in Amsterdam which was really inspiring. It was nice to hear key note speakers such as Jeff Jarvis, Andrew Keen, Chris Sacca, Bradley Horowitz, Werner Vogels, Matt Mullenweg … talking about their vision on the web. I also enjoyed the presentations of the different start-ups. It’s nice to see that there’s a 2.0 world beyond Silicon Valley and that European entrepreneurs have a platform where they can show their product and business model (although some of them still need to think about their business model and long-term sustainability in my opinion).
To me, the main takeaways of the conference were the following:
Open standards and integration
Khris Loux (JS-Kit) talked a lot about dominators of the current web, open standards and integration during the unConference on Wednesday.
The current dominators are always using the same strategy: create a platform, make sure they have a lock-in and then just dominate the space. He gave the example of Facebook who created a social networking platform where the lock-in lies in the presence of all of your friends: you just have to create an account and it’s not easy to walk away. And they are further expanding their “walled garden” via Facebook connect, a smart mechanism to enlarge their web presence and drive traffic to Facebook. Another technique that dominators use is giving a competitor’s core revenue away for free (sort of speak). For instance, Facebook could attack Google by introducing an open-source social search on their platform or by sharing a larger chunk of their advertising revenues with users.
Big companies such as Yahoo, Microsoft and AOL are wounded and need all the help they can get to fight against Google, Twitter, Facebook… So many start-ups could take advantage of this opportunity and make some deals that weren’t possible one or two years ago. Khris also gives the advice to start-ups, publishers and companies in general to not let their business model depend upon one dominant provider or service, but to work together and integrate multiple parties. If your business is built upon this dominant force, then you might be out of business soon, because typically, these dominant forces reign for 5-10 years (who knows, Facebook might not be here in 5 to 10 years anymore) until a new king arrives.
Customer centricity as business model
Werner Vogels (CTO of Amazon.com) made a plea for the customer-centric business model. Everything Amazon.com does is in the best interest of their consumers. “If you don’t focus on your consumers, they will just go elsewhere” says Werner Vogels and he continues “customers just want to buy products at the lowest price and this is not going to change in the future”.
Amazon’s model (“the flywheel”) is built on a (1) broad offering at (2) the lowest price, because it drives customer experience and traffic. The increased traffic attracts more sellers resulting in a broader offering and reduced costs enabling Amazon to lower the prices even more. And there you go, you have a flywheel.
So that’s also a reason why Amazon opened up its platform to allow other merchants to sell via Amazon.com (leads to a broader offer). Even the cloud computing services (Amazon EC2) offered to other companies are a way to have more economies of scale and further reduce costs.
Goodbye social web, hail to the MEdia
The presentation of Andrew Keen, “l’enfant terrible” of the Internet, was one of the main highlights of the next web conference.
He started his presentation by showing a painting of Johannes Vermeer (“Woman in Blue Reading a Letter”) and stating that, although the current post-industrial age is fundamentally different from the industrial age, the same rules still apply when it comes to media in general.
According to Keen, the two key principles of successful media are intimacy and trust which are depicted in the picture. When you look at the painting, you see a woman that is captivated and deeply emerged in a conversation.
The current web 2.0 industry however is flawed because it tried to replace the old media but it just left an empty space and a “cult of amateurs” (must-read book published by Keen in 2003). Most web 2.0 start-ups don’t have a long-term business model which is unforgivable in the post-industrial age (e.g. YouTube for instance).
The time has come for new MEdia whereby technology empowers the individual and not the institutions. Twitter is the final nail in the coffin of 2.0 business models. Technologies such as Twitter empower smart talented people to voice their opinion and to build a personal brand.
Googlize your business to succeed
Jeff Jarvis was also present on the next web to promote his new book “What would Google do?”. His book isn’t about his love for Google (no he even stated that he loves all of us), but how other businesses could learn from the principles Google applied. After all Google has been one of the most successful companies in the past decade, so why not investigate how they did it.
I mentioned it before in this blog post, but Jarvis also stresses the importance of integration. Instead of creating everything yourself, you should be present were the people are. So create a platform, work together with other people and think distributed. Don’t be scared to open up your platform via API’s, but give the controls to the user.
He also states that mass markets are dead and companies need to realize that we live in a world of individuals where people want to voice their opinion and where companies should offer the means to let their customers do so, in order to survive (and to learn from their consumers).
Jarvis runs through his PowerPoint presentation (link here) to show us examples of applying Google in virtually every sector. For instance, why not have lunch in a Google restaurant where you can see what other people ordered, read user reviews of the different dishes, improve the chef’s recipes, get food recommendations that match your taste…
Deal with the overload
Matt Mullenweg (founder of WordPress and other successful web businesses) gave an inspiring speech on the necessity to deal with the current information overload caused by the web 2.0. According to Matt, it’s impossible for an individual to absorb all the information that is present on the web and he uses a brilliant analogy to prove his point: Solomon Shereshevskii, a Russian journalist, became famous because he could literally recall every word from a speech or conversation he had with someone. Unfortunately, his “gift” also resulted in various annoying symptoms such as trouble memorizing things which weren’t literal in meaning, problems recognizing people’s faces (because of little details that changed that weren’t visible to other human beings)…
The gift of absorbing literally all the information led to many troubles which is also the case for the current state of blogs and social media. We just need better ways to digest information, to capture and restructure information.
Matt’s vision is also supported by Bradley Horowitz (VP Google Apps) who argues that the ability of a user to record his whole life online is one of the biggest challenges for Google because there’s just too much information we cannot handle. Therefore Google needs to think about metadata and context.
Some E-goistic thoughts to wrap-up this post (hey, MEdia is the key of the post-industrial age)
I thought it was pretty funny to see such a lot of Facebook bashers and Twitter adepts at the conference. For many attendees, Twitter is the next big thing and Facebook is the enemy who tries to dominate the web or replicates Twitter with his homepage redesign.
I must admit that after 3 days of twitter brainwashing I even start thinking that Twitter is the dominant force behind the world (and no, not only the world wide web). However, I came to my senses when I went to an Italian restaurant on Friday with my colleague Tom De Ruyck. I took some pictures of the things we ordered to put them on my Facebook page and the waiter asked me why I took these pictures. And I said: “I just want to share them with my friends and colleagues on Facebook”. He looked at me and said: “what is Facebook and why would you put these pictures online?”
Then I realized that during the last 3 days I was part of a mini-society that was not really representative for the Dutch population (although it’s an innovative nation according to Keen). But it was fun to be surrounded by geeks like myself with Apple laptops, individuals (em)powered by Wi-Fi and people who like to tweet once in a while every minute (and few “nitwitters” who don’t understand what all the fuzz is about).
Finally, I must congratulate the organisation of the next web conference because they did a great job: interesting key note speakers, nice networking opportunities and smoothly glued together by the hosts! I couldn’t think of a better location to hold the conference than Amsterdam: relaxed people, cosy atmosphere, good food and sunny weather. I’ll definitely see you again in 2010!
If you like to share some comments, contact me Gianni.cooreman@insites.eu

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