I feel a bit like the kid from Cameron Crowe's film, Almost Famous. I'm at Web Directions South in Sydney, satchel and recorder in hand, trying to pin down the conference co-founder and CSS development leading light, John Allsopp for an interview. The scene is not dissimilar to backstage at a rock concert. Even in the rare moments Allsopp stands still, he's everywhere and everybody wants him. He walks - and talks - at 100 miles an hour and multitasks a dozen different things at once.
And it is as if he has transferred that energy to the 700 of Australia's leading Web professionals who have crammed into the exhibition centre to hear smart, passionate people speak about interesting projects. Talk to random stranger for five minutes and you are guaranteed to learn something, see an old problem in a different light and remember why you got into the technology gig in the first place.
It's hardly surprising then, that Allsopp's accomplishments are many and varied. Software engineer, speaker, writer, educator, surf lifesaver and father, he is probably best known for his work with cascading style sheets (CSS), Web design and development. He and his business partner, Maxine Sherrin, began what is now Web Directions in 2004. These days the conference runs in Sydney in Australia (South), Denver in the US (North) and Tokyo in Japan (East), which kicked off this week. So how did it all begin?
"Back in about 1994 we were developing hypertext document management systems," Allsopp says. "The Web was emerging and we thought: "why don't we use this' to distribute software and serve it online instead of setting up in the US?" Through that, we kind of became Web experts and the irony, of course, was that the Web wiped out the thing we were trying to market, which we had built and had customers all over the world. It became hypertext."
In the meantime Allsopp, who was also teaching business related topics at TAFE, was approached to put together a course about the Web.
"That led me to the standards-based open Web aspects," he says. Now everybody talks open Web and standards are important - this was 1995-96 - but back then that was crazy talk. I mean, things like CSS had only really just started to emerge. Even the first standards of HTML were only a couple of years old, if that. The World Wide Web Consortium was only about a year old. For that next period, I started building software, which is still around, things like StyleMaster CSS editor."
'Still around' is an understatement. Style Master, a cross platform CSS developments software, has tens of thousands of users around the world. Despite being the oldest CSS development tool on Windows and Mac, it's frequently updated; it's currently in public beta for version 5 on the Mac OS.
It was during one of the workshops that the idea for a conference came about. It started as a grass roots meetup at the University of Technology in Sydney, run as side project.
"It made money but the opportunity cost, in terms of the rest of our business, was pretty significant. We realised we had to either make it a business or it was just an expensive hobby that we couldn't afford anymore. So Maxine and I forged out to take the concept, rebrand it and refocus it."
Web Directions launched in 2006 and soon grew too big for the UTS campus. Allsopp and Sherrin took a punt and moved the event to the Exhibition Centre. It increased costs significantly, but it also allowed an increase in numbers.
"And we put a lot of energy into the expo, which was a bit of an experiment," Allsopp says. In the Web there can be an open, to some extent anti-commercial, attitude among some people. But we thought we'd try it and if we got a lot of push back we wouldn't do it. Interestingly enough, the feedback was really positive. People felt that inside the rooms was their space and editorial content and outside was commercial conversations. This is something we really try to emphasise when we work with potential vendors and exhibitors and sponsors. It's in everybody's interest that that demarkation be really clearly delinieated. You don't want to hear a sales pitch. Yes, there can be stuff done around the technology but the key is you want the expertise, you want the skillsets and so on."
These days the focus is primarily on Web Directions.
Web Directions North, a joint venture which began in Canada and was last held in Denver in the US, continues to grow and Allsopp hints at more US events on the horizon. Then there's the Japanese market. Web Directions East is currently underway in Tokyo.
"This is our second year," he says. "Japan's a very tough market in which there's virtually no-one else. Big companies like TechWeb and Interop have pulled out. It's really tough. We have to be aggressively pricing our conferences. People have to pay for themselves and companies won't get time off for the event so we're running workshops on a weekend. It's interesting in having to adapt. Everything we do from our business models to communication techniques to community building and even the concept of how commercial our conference should be."
In the works
- Writing a new book, to be announced soon.
- A sporadic Twitterer.
- About to launch Style Master 5 for Mac OS X with a Windows version to follow.
- Working on tools such as XRAY and MRI, to help web designers and developers be more productive.
- Working on the CSS 3 Sandbox - a set of tools for exploring CSS 3 properties
- Preparing for Web Directions East in Tokyo.