The keynote talks at WWW 2008 promised to be exciting. With names like Google VP Kai-Fu Lee (who's departure from Microsoft famously revealed Ballmer's hidden passion for hurling chairs), Microsoft VP Harry Shum, inventor of the Web Tim Berners-Lee, and AT&T Chief Scientist David Belanger, how could you go wrong?
Surprisingly, it did go wrong. Everyone I talked to gave reviews of the keynotes that ranged from lukewarm to blisteringly negative.
The general conclusion, which also agrees with my perception, seemed to be that Kai-Fu Lee and Harry Shum gave pitches for Google and Microsoft rather than vision. And, in the Great Hall of the People, Tim Berners-Lee seemed woefully unprepared, rambling with such a lack of coherent theme that many buried themselves in alcohol to escape the pain.
Nevertheless, there were tidbits that could be extracted. Comparing Kai-Fu Lee's and Harry Shum's talks, I was struck by the way Harry Shum focused entirely on search while Kai-Fu seemed to be looking beyond search.
Kai-Fu talked mostly about cloud computing and showed Google products as examples of a shift toward cloud computing. For example, Kai-Fu pointed at GMail and Google Docs as applications moving to the browser, and integration of those applications as examples of how the browser can make applications more "task-focused" (an argument I found quite weak, by the way, even though I tend to support the ideas behind cloud computing).
Harry Shum focused on improving search, noting that "40% of queries go unanswered" and "50% require refinement", and then saying we need to look at concepts, topics, entities, and tasks to try to figure out "what the user really wants to do".
On the one hand, both talks seemed odd to me that the search giant Google offered a keynote at a Web conference not about search whereas Microsoft used their keynote to talk about little else.
On the other hand, both talks may have been looking at what the companies need to do to expand beyond where they currently are on the Web. Google needs to move beyond search and advertising. Microsoft needs to get into search and advertising. In that framework, the two speeches make a lot of sense.
David Belanger's sparsely attended talk was about how we can integrate data across three distinct interfaces, mobile, PC, and television. Unlike some who claim these three are converging, David argued that TV, PC, and mobile will stay separate and the key question will be interfacing them with each other. I was pleased that David pushed recommendations for information as necessary "in the not to distant future" when we have "access to any video ever made" and only weak ability to specify our interests beyond a desire to watch something fun and interesting. Sadly, he did not expand much on that point, instead devoting much of the talk to promoting AT&T and discussing low level networking details of data sharing and synchronization.
It is hard to say much about Tim's talk other than that he was enthusiastic about globalization, internationalization, and the semantic web. Tim pointed that Chinese was poised to become the dominant language on the Web and urged everyone to think about the changes that would cause. He promoted the semantic web, but offered nothing new. The remainder of talk was so badly unstructured -- nearly a stream of consciousness -- that it was hard to follow despite the passion he tried to put behind it.