Clarifying the NextWeb Story, and the question of vision

31 May 2008

Earlier in the week I had a most enjoyable 24 hours in Amsterdam. The reason for being there was the Kings of Code conference on Tuesday, but the trip got off to an excellent start the night before at a dinner for the speakers and sponsors, ably catered by Boris Veldhuijzen van Zanten.

Over mushroom risotto, generously doused in truffle oil, I chatted with Ernst- Jan of NextWeb.

Vision

Ernst-Jan bemoaned the lack of vision in start-ups, and although I didn't disagree, I pointed out that you also have to be careful not to be too far ahead. I explained that you need to work out how to get across your 'vision' in ways that people can relate to what is happening today.

I used the example of using web technologies to build desktop applications, something me and my colleagues have been working on for years, but I pointed out that when we first started doing it, nobody really 'got it'. Even Mike Arrington didn't get it, back then, as we danced around with Adobe, over a potential purchase.

Yet today I see blogs that begin, "as I predicted a month ago, the desktop and the web are merging", and my point to Ernst-Jan was that there is no point in getting annoyed by this, and in fact, counter-intuitively it's a good thing, since it shows a growing awareness of the general concepts, which means there is now more chance that our original ideas will be understood.

Naive

Ernst-Jan blogged about this conversation, and I have no problems at all with his post. I'm prompted to reply only because of the comments that his blog has attracted. One comment asserts that the 'moral' of the tale is don't trust big companies like Adobe; but my point was not that Adobe 'stole' the idea, but that merely it eventually came of age to the point that it suddenly seemed obvious, and then everyone starts doing it.

Aim low

Another comment said that this story illustrated that small companies should rein themselves in, and stick to 'small things'. Here I really strongly disagree, and would point out that a lot of important innovations of the last few years have come from small companies or even individuals.

And in my own experience it's not always a story of 'no-one will listen', either. Over four years ago I proposed in my work at the W3C, a technique for carrying metadata in HTML and XHTML documents. The name has been changed to RDFa, but it's the same concept, and now it is in