Le Web: The tech world's best talk about the hottest trends
- 12 December 2010
- From the section Business
Charlie Kindel is about to speak to me for an interview, when he is interrupted by a polite young man holding a laptop.
The man shows Mr Kindel, who works with app developers for Microsoft's new Windows Phone 7 line-up, a contest he was running and asked if he would post it on his Twitter.
"Sure, no problem," Mr Kindel says cheerfully, and quickly retweets the message on his mobile.
And just like that, a young French student and self-described "would-be web entrepreneur" has his message shared with Mr Kindel's 5,700 followers.
All around him, people wander around with iPads and record each other's sound bites. The official bloggers have as large a press area as the traditional media.
Welcome to Le Web, an annual conference where the best and brightest people of the tech world come together in Paris to discuss what is hot.
'Natural user interfaces'
This year, Le Web happens to fall on the day a snowstorm shut down the airports and the Eiffel Tower, and brought traffic to a standstill in the French capital.
Despite being trapped there, it isn't all bad. The three halls are filled with web celebrities and - this being France - wine is being served from noon.
Geeks are so ubiquitous in the mainstream now that one of the Oscar favourites for the year is about the launch of Facebook.
2010 has been a good year for people in the industry, a year when smartphones took off in a major way.
"We have more and more natural user interfaces," says Mr Kindel.
He is referring not only to the touchscreens on most smartphones and tablets like the iPads, but also to the Kinect - another Microsoft product that launched this year with sensors that track physical movement.
"The ability to move around and it to track you, that is revolutionary," he says. "I'm personally very excited by the potential of that."
Mr Kindel says that the 'smart tiles' design interface of the Windows phones were based on traffic signs and other iconic visual signals you see in everyday life.
It has also been the year of convergence - when more products are doing the same thing.
"I love the stuff we're doing - combining mobile, social with local," says Dennis Crowley, the boyish co-founder of the one of the world's hottest start-ups, Foursquare.
The company tracks your location and allows you to check-in at your favourite spots. "I'm really enjoying people do mash-ups of social media," Mr Crowley adds.
As well as convergence, the big tech powers are in each other's faces. Facebook is on every iPhone and Google Android phone, while Google and Apple both launched social networks in the past year.
When you log in to the new Windows phones for the first time, for example, you are asked to enter your social networks like Facebook, Twitter, Flickr and so on.
"In the big companies, one of the biggest trends is that they are all starting to do the same things," says Mitchell Baker, chairwoman of the Mozilla Foundation, the non-profit that makes products like Firefox.
"Google is interested in social. Facebook and Apple are interested in ads."
This is true for Ms Baker as well. One of its long-term partners, Google, has a search deal with Mozilla that is renewed every two or three years.
The latest deal is set to expire next year - and Google has its own browser, Chrome, to support, so why does it need to pay to be on Firefox?
"Competition is a good thing and it makes us better," Ms Baker says. "I expect that conversation to be [about] whether it is a good fit for Google and good for us, and not as much about Chrome. A lot of people come to Google through Firefox.
"I'm pretty comfortable about that conversation," she adds, smiling.
But there are also a lot of trends that have not taken off.
"Wave cratered, and it cratered hard!" says Peter Biddle, head of apps at chipmaker Intel.
He is referring to the dearly-departed Google Wave, a confusing product that attempted to provide e-mail, text and chat all in one place.
Unveiled in May 2009, it was discontinued in August as perplexed users had no idea what to do with it.
"They came up with a phenomenal metaphor and, unlike Twitter, they couldn't get a packaged version of it out," Mr Biddle says.
Yet many of its ideas are alive in Facebook's new mail system, showing how the whole tech ecosystem is dependent on innovation from all its parts.
Others were intrigued by the lack of challenges to Facebook, for all the many criticisms levelled at it.
"There have been many social networks that emphasise privacy and small-group communication, and it's interesting that they haven't taken off yet," says Marko Ahtisaari, head of design at Finnish phone giant Nokia.
"But I think their time will come."
Big versus small
Both Mr Ahtisaari and Mr Biddle are also illustrative of a trend, in that they both worked at start-ups previously, and now work at huge companies perceived to be threatened by upstarts.
Mr Ahtisaari founded Dopplr, a social travel site, and was head of design at a free mobile service, Blyk. Mr Biddle was vice-president of Trampoline Systems, a social analytics firm in London.
Now they are helping design the future of some of the world's largest firms.
Yet at the other end, you have start-ups gleefully pitching why their new cool product will make the big boys obsolete.
What makes these conferences so interesting is they put the people running some of the world's biggest industries next to the people trying to disrupt them.
At Le Web, I was talking to a man who was seriously convinced that his new social network would destroy Facebook when it is unveiled next year.
And who knows? Maybe it will.