SXSWi 2009, March 12-18, Austin, Texas

Report by Chris Mills, with contributions from Henny Swan

SXSWi 2009 rather unsurprisingly proved to be another week of incredible conversations, sharing joys with old friends and new friends, and putting together great ideas for future work (and play). As I sit on the second leg of my journey home, feeling slightly sad that it seemed to go by so quick, I've decided to write an article to tell you about my experiences during this week. It'll be a shorter, more concise article than usual, as my SXSWi reports usually spiral out of control towards minor novel status, and I suspect that few people read them ;-)

The Lead up

One thing I was really glad I did this year was go over a few days early and get all of the jetlag out of the way before the event starts. Even if you just go over to Austin a day or two early and chill out and do a little bit of sightseeing, I'd recommend everybody to do this if you can spare the time. I think it improved my first couple of days at SXSWi immensely.

I actually stopped off at Houston for a few days and visited my good friend John \m/ Grden, awesome drummer and godlike Flash/3D developer. It was so awesome hanging out with him and his family, getting a whole load of work done, then taking a bit of time out to visit NASA and get some gaming in.

After saying goodbye to John, I had a mere 41-minute flight to endure before getting to Austin. I got the long part of the journey out of the way a few days previously of course, but it just felt psychologically really good to know I was so close and see Tweets from my friends in the UK saying that they were up early and had long journeys ahead ;-)

The first couple of days

I got in to Austin at a really good time, sharing a flight with colleagues Lawrence Eng and meeting Michelle Valdivia Lien shortly after landing. The awesome Thomas Ford picked us up in our hire car, and took us to our "glamourous" hotel, which actually wasn't that bad for $69 a night, although the location was a bit far out.

I got some work out of the way and waited for the delectable Miss Swan to get in, then we made our way to the Opera UT (University of Texas at Austin) university tour, delivered by Chaals McCathie Nevile. It was straight into the great conversations, as the talk was attended by Leslie Jensen-Inman, Glenda Goodwitch, Nicole Sullivan, and some great new friends such as Steven Bush, Will Martin, and Chaals' sister Georgie. After the lecture we went for some food and had more nice conversation, before getting some much needed sleep.

The next day I met up with my friend Carl Camera, had some food, did some mooching around the conference, saw a load of people (far too numerous to list here), had a nice lunch with Carl's family, then did some set up stuff and headed on over for the WaSP Edu TF meeting at the Gingerman. Present were a whole host of amazing people - Glenda, Virginia DeBolt, Aarron Walter, Steph Troeth, Leslie, Derek Featherstone, Nick Fogler, and Jamie from Yahoo! Education. We had a great meeting about the future of the OWEA (Open Web Education Alliance), designed to help spread the word about Interact and the Opera WSC as much as possible. We need to first write a proper statement of intent to say exactly what we want to do with the alliance before going any further.

As that meeting drew to a close the Blue Flavour party began, and loads more great people descended on the place, like Jeff Croft, Lisa Herrod, Lachlan Hardy, Norm, Steve Marshall, Simon Willison, and others. We stuck around for a bit, then I went off to a nice little private dinner at Jim Thatcher's house, with Henny, Glenda, Lisa, and Derek. It was really nice to meet more of the accessibility crowd, like Jim Allen, Sharon Rush, Andrew Kirkpatrick, Matt May, Andi Snow-Weaver, and Cynthia Shelly. A veritable who's who of accessibility.

The next day after that was when the conference really started, with the tradeshow opening. I spent all day on the booth, creating a press pack out of HTML, CSS and SVG, loading it on to pen drives to give to journalists, answering questions, being nice to people. It was lovely to see Pete and Julie from friends of ED and catch up with them. It was also nice to talk to other Opera folks like Håkon Wium Lie and new-girl-on-the-block Molly Holzschlag.

I saw old friends like Remy Sharp, Lena Cardell, Steph Sullivan, Steve Stedman, Greg Rewis, Jeremy Keith, Jessica, Rich Rutter and more. I also met my old friend Allan Kent for the first time - I've been doing bits of work with him on and off for about 7 or 8 years, but never met him in the Flesh before.

Monday evening involved lots of really good meat at the Iron Works with Henny, Allan, and others, a trip to the Happy Cog karaoke night, which was dreadful but fun, and then a trip to Buffalo Billiards with Aarron W, Henny, Norm, Lena, and her friend Nate. We sucked really bad at pool, but it was still fun.

Sunday and Monday

The first thing to do on Sunday was meet Aarron and Steph for breakfast, and go through the slides for our panel to make sure we were properly prepared. Win!

Sunday involved lots more booth duty, plus I checked out the Breaking Boundaries: Mobile Web Access in Emerging Economies talk featuring Chaals and some other mobile dudes. It was nice to see a number of talks this time on the mobile market and development big picture, rather than just iPhone development. It was also really nice to see a number of education panels besides the "No web professional left behind" panel that I appeared on; this is an area of interest that is truly gaining traction.

Having presented a lightning talk on Saturday about Accessibility of the stage we had in the booth and launched the Accessibility Challenge Henny announced winners towards the end of the day on Sunday. First prize was an Asus EEE PC that went to Martin Kliehm for It was good to see such a buzz around accessibility and Henny was kept pretty busy throughout Saturday and Sunday talking to people about using Opera to build standards compliant and accessible websites.

After booth duty ended I went to Ms Jen's wine and cheese party at Jeremy and Jessica's room; sure was a good cheese selection! Lots of great conversation too! I then went to PF Changs for some Chinese with Kenneth Himschoot, Nicole, Craig Cook, Steph, Leslie, Shaun, Matt Harris and others. After laughing at Kenneth for burning his mouth on ridiculously spicy prawns, and learning about Matt and co's upcoming app, I took a taxi home and got a ridiculously large amount of sleep for a SXSWi night - 9 hours! I wasn't taking any chances with my panel on Monday.

Monday morning involved attending the Browser Wars III panel, which Chaals represented us on. It also featured Chris Wilson (IE) and Brendan Eich (Mozilla), plus a new guy - a Google Chrome representative. It was a lot more civilised than previous browser wars, with the main highlights being making fun of Apple for not being there again, Brendan Eich saying that he was less worried about Silverlight than last year, as it had failed to take over the Web, and some general useful thoughts about cross platform support and browser speed. Jeremy Keith then shook things up by asking a really damning question about EOT (Embedded OpenType), which caused Chris Wilson to have a bit of a rant, but I agree with Jeremy. If other formats can be safely used without charging on a per use basis, why can't we do the same with fonts? There are plenty of reasonable free ones anyway.

More booth duty followed, plus going over to the Hilton green room to meet up with Aarron and Steph, and to meet Leon Adkinson for the first time - our replacement WOW (world organization of webmasters) panelist. He seemed like a cool guy, so I felt pretty good about the whole thing.

My panel

Overall I was pleased with how our panel went - the room was not completely packed, but it was decently attended, not many people walked out and others came in and joined mid way through, there were lots of really interesting questions throughout, and we carried ourselves off well. I think it could've run slightly smoother, and we maybe should have made more of the questions wait till the end, but yeah, t'was good.

I am really pleased that there is so much enthusiasm over our educational initiatives - the Opera WSC and WaSP InterAct - I had a number of people throughout the conference come up to me and be really enthusiastic about them, and ask me further questions. I've not really had any overtly negative feedback.

After my panel I sat and watched the WaSP general meeting, delivered by Derek, Steph Sullivan, Aaron Gustafson, Glenda, and our very own Henny. It was all very interesting, although Aaron's delivery of the IE8 versioning meta tag was met with quite furious disdain from the audience. I still think it is a really awful idea that is simply encouraging web developers to not bother learning standards properly. The button on the interface to toggle it on/off is awful too - it is going to be so easy for people to hit that by accident, especially end users that don't know what they are doing.

Henny, in her role as co-lead of the WaSP International Liaison Group, spoke about how important it was to globalise the conversation around web standards. All too often it is very focused on the challenges and needs of English speaking countries with the challenges encountered in other countries given less consideration. Henny also announced ILG's intention to start translation efforts on InterAct.

Monday evening

Monday evening was fun - my evening to indulge in a bit of rock and roll activity now that my responsibilities are all finished with. I went to the Great British Booze up with Henny, and ended up talking to Glenn Jones, Steve Marshall, Remy, Pete and Julie from foED, Paul Boag, Greg Rewis, Ralph Brandi, Martin Kliehm, and tons of others. We then went to a place across the street for some food, then Niqui blagged us into a film party, which was an entertaining distraction, after which we caught the end of North by North East. I remember having a very silly conversation with Lisa Herrod, although I'm not sure what about. I also remember going on about still not being drunk by the end of the night, and then realising I was rather tipsy by the time we got back to the hotel, because I couldn't remember some of the previous night's conversation ;-)

Tuesday and Wednesday

The final chapter! It felt rather sad to only have one day to go! We went in to the conference eventually, after having a giant conversation about underpants over Twitter, and getting some work done. We chilled out in the day stage, chatting to James Craig, Aarron, and a few others. We then went for a nice team lunch at the Hoffbrau, and I had a 17oz T-bone steak, then ate Henny's leftovers too, much to the amazement of my team mates.

We attended the keynote in the afternoon - Guy Kawasaki interviewing Chris Anderson from Wired about "The power of free". Chris had a lot of interesting things to say about the value of free business models, Freemium, etc, and how we could monetize services like Twitter. Check out #free on Twitter.

After this we answered Norm's rallying call and spent the rest of the afternoon in the Iron Cactus working (by working I mean drinking Margaritas), and having some really useful and inspiring conversation. In fact, some of this was the most useful conversation I had for the whole conference.

I then went for some Mexican food with the Opera posse plus Lisa, Lachlan and Andy Budd, then we went along to the Media Temple final party, and had, erm, a few more beers. After it had finished we got some cycle taxis over to the IHop for pancakes and more really silly conversation.

Wednesday is still proving difficult - I'll get back to you again when I'm home and awake ;-)