Joseph Smarr

Thoughts on web development, tech, and life.

Month: March 2008

Launching clickpass: the inside story

Adding clickpass to PlaxoCo-founder Peter Nixey just wrote up a riveting account of the recent launch of his startup clickpass for Vitamin. It’s a must-read. Plaxo was one of clickpass’s launch partners, so the story features a few cameos from yours truly.

It will be hard to forget waking up in an Austin hotel around 9am on the day of the launch, eyes blurry from a heavy night of partying (er, that is, “networking”), glancing over at the alarm clock, and then jolting out of bed with the cold shock of realization: “oh crap, clickpass is launching this morning and I haven’t pushed the code live on Plaxo yet!”. My roommate John McCrea was still sound asleep, but I knew I had to get my computer set up and get on the phone with Peter and Immad (the other clickpass co-founder) ASAP to work out the last few kinks and get the code deployed. Thank god for VPNs and cell phones! How did they do this in the old days? Oh wait, I guess they didn’t. :)

Another memorable moment came a few moments later when Ryan King, our VP of Engineering, called John (who had just woken up to the sound of me talking frantically with Immad; probably something like “well you’ll just have to work around it and set a config flag on your side!”) to ask him about breakfast. I suddenly realized that I’d only recently learned that clickpass was planning to launch this morning, and I’d never informed the rest of the Plaxo team that I was about to push this new code live. (Our release process is normally more disciplined, but luckily our team is very supportive of my frequent need to push code out-of-band to meet external press deadlines). So I motioned to John to give me the phone quickly, and told Ryan (somewhat meekly), “uh, oh yeah, just so you know, I’m about to patch a bunch of code so we can help this startup called clickpass launch. I’m pretty sure it’s not going to break anything, but I thought I should give you a heads up. Hope that’s ok.” Not my most professional moment, but it’s not the first time this has happened either, and I’ve never done *that* much damage before, so I think Ryan said something like “ok, just keep an eye on it please”. Hmm, does checking twitter obsessively count? Actually, in this crowd, that’s about as timely and accurate as checking our servers’ log files. :) And of course, in the end, everything worked out fine.

I’d been talking off and on with the clickpass guys since fall of last year, when I kept hearing about “this cool YCombinator startup that’s doing a super-friendly OpenID UI” whom I “should really talk to”. Always eager to help advance technologies like OpenID, I was curious to see what they’d come up with. Their technology, UI, and partner integration matured a lot between that first demo and their launch day, but even at our first meeting I could tell, “these guys are serious, they’re thinking well about the issues, and they seem determined to get things done.” Just as important, “they seem open and eager to hear feedback, even when it’s critical, and they don’t mind iterating until they get it right.”

For any startup that wants to partner with established players–or for that matter, be successful in any event–these are vitally important qualities. It’s what finally got us in the position where I could feel good about integrating clickpass into Plaxo in time for the launch–we worked back and forth until we found a way to get a good user experience without having to significantly change our existing UI or backend. This included huddling around a table on the floor of the SXSW convention center with Peter, talking about flows and edge cases (pictured above), and many a skype session with Immad tracking down bugs and deployment issues. But it was all worth it–the launch was a huge success, and the partnership provided clear benefits to both parties, and more importantly, to our users.

Social Networks: Where are they taking us? (MIX 08)

Social Networks: Where are they taking us?
MIX 08 (panel)
Las Vegas, NV (Venetian)
March 6, 2008

Download audio (WMV 43.9 MB, MP4 38.6 MB)

My panel on social networks at MIXJoshua Allen from Microsoft contacted me and asked if I’d like to be on a panel at MIX 08, Microsoft’s big web-focused conference, about the future of social networks. I’d never been to a Microsoft conference before (most of the events I go to are full of fellow valley startup people), so I was curious for the “anthropological value”, and when he told me the panel would be moderated by Guy Kawasaki and feature a cast of heavy hitters (Dave Morin from Facebook, Garret Camp from StumbleUpon, Marc Canter, and John Richards from Microsoft Live Platform), I knew I couldn’t possibly pass up this chance. Good thing too, because it was a remarkable event and certainly quite memorable.

The panel itself went very well–it was right after the amazing, boisterous keynote conversation between Steve Ballmer and Guy Kawasaki, so the fact that Guy was also running our panel brought in an extra large crowd. The discussion was heated and productive: how quickly will/should social networks open up, when will OpenID be ready for mass adoption, what about privacy issues, and so on. Guy was his usual awesome self: light-hearted but pointed, and always cutting to the chase. There were lots of questions from the audience, and they came up to talk for quite a while after the panel ended, so they were clearly engaged and interested, which is the best thing I could hope for.

Another thrill for me was getting to spend a lot of time with the IE team. The first IE 8 beta had just been released, and it was clear the team was fired up to really make a leap forward in standards support, performance, and features. Along with dojo creator Alex Russell, PPK of QuirksMode fame, JavaScript guru Doug Crockford, and a few others, the IE team invited us to a VIP party with them that started in TAO (a ridiculously large night club in the Venetian, complete with a roof-top beach) and ended up in the “Kingpin Suite” at the Palms, complete with in-room bowling alleys. Man, these guys know how to party! And they were genuinely interested in hearing our feedback about how to make IE better, how to provide better tools, and so on. As a long-time web developer, I normally assume I have no visibility into or control over the actual browser, how it works, or where it’s going, and my job is just to work around its issues as I find them. So it’s an amazing feeling to actually know the people writing the code for the next version of IE, and to know that my feedback might actually have a real impact. That coupled with the passion of the new IE team members gives me great optimism that the web platform will indeed get a lot better soon.

Oh yeah, and they lost my suitcase :(It was an odd feeling going to such a large conference where I knew so few people, and where there were so few startups represented (most of the developers seemed to be from large companies, IT organizations, and so on). But I learned a ton, had a great time, and even managed to shoot some photos in the process. The only downside was that upon leaving the hotel to go to the airport, the hotel realized they couldn’t find my suitcase which I’d checked earlier that day. Turns out some bellhop put it in the trunk of another car by mistake, and it ended up with a family in LA. The hotel said they’d pay to have it shipped up to me, but I still don’t have it. Since I was leaving the next day for SXSW, I had to quickly scrounge together a fresh set of toiletries, clothes, and so on. Luckily nothing too irreplaceable was in my suitcase, and hopefully it will show up on my doorstep any day now, but yeesh, what a way to end a trip!

The Future of Social Networks (Future of Web Apps Miami)

The Future of Social Networks
Future of Web Apps Miami (with Tantek Çelik and Brian Oberkirch)
Miami, FL
February 29, 2008

View Slides (slideshare)
Download MP3 Audio (37.3 MB)

In addition to the half-day workshop I presented at FOWA Miami, I also gave a talk as part of the main event with Tantek and Brian Orberkirch (who also has a great write-up of our talk) on The Future of Social Networks. I summarized my remarks in my previous FOWA post, but I wanted to add a separate post for this talk so I could link to the slides and audio (and video should be available soon as well). FOWA was a great event, and I’m eager for the next one!

Implementing Open Social Web support on your site (Future of Web Apps Miami)

Implementing Open Social Web support on your site
Future of Web Apps Miami (workshop)
Miami, FL
February 28, 2008

Download PPT (3.8 MB)

I was invited to give a workshop and be on a panel at the Future of Web Apps in Miami. I attended the first FOWA in SF in 2006, and I really enjoyed it, so it was fun to get to be on stage this time. I’d never done a long workshop before, but I love talking about Open Social Web technologies, so I basically went through all of the various building blocks (OpenID, OAuth, microformats, OpenSocial, Social Graph API, friends-list portability, URLs as identifiers, etc.) and wrapped it in some high-level context about the emergence of a Social Web. The audience was very lively and engaged, and they asked a ton of great questions. So I was very happy with how it all worked out. These are the slides from my workshop; they’re a bit light since I was mainly using them as a reference to talk over. But hopefully they provide some useful jumping-off points to learn more.

I also gave a presentation on the main stage about the future of social networks with Tantek and Brian Oberkirch. Brian made the slides, which hopefully he’ll post too. My piece of the talk was called “Open for business” and it was about how being open can be good for your company, because it lowers friction to signing up and sharing, and it makes you a more relevant part of the online ecosystem. I showed demos of how you can sign up for Plaxo with an OpenID and pre-fill your registration info, discover and auto-suggest sites to add to Pulse using Google’s Social Graph API, and express yourself in new ways using OpenSocial gadgets. I think it helped the audience see that these open technologies aren’t just a cool idea, you can actually implement them today, as we have, and they work well enough to benefit mainstream users.

After the conference, there was a beach party at Nikki beach, and on Saturday, a bunch of us went with Leah Culver and Kevin Rose to attend the first Pownce Brunch to meet fellow users. We even managed to sneak in a little shopping and some beach volleyball. But of course we were talking about code and startups the entire time, since we all tend to lack that so-called “work-life balance”. :) Another highlight for me was meeting Gary Vaynerchuk, the star of Wine Library TV. I’m surprised I’d never heard of him (since I’m into both wine and disruptive technologies), and he was super cool and friendly and is clearly having a major impact. He taped an episode of his show live at FOWA, and he and Kevin and I even came up with an idea for a side project that we may try to spin up sometime…

I returned home late Saturday night (thanks to Pete for picking me up!) and tomorrow I’m back on the road: GSP, MIX, and SXSW. Gotta keep spreading the good word!

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