'Now's the time for the geeks in the trenches'

That's why Christian thinks the end of Brickhouse, Yahoo's idea incubator, doesn't signal the end of innovation at Yahoo. "It's a shame it got closed, but innovation is much more than just having a specialist department for it. Being a developer at the Yahoo Developer Network, I'm part of the team that looks after innovation. To me it happens by fostering internally and giving people time to build things. Microsoft does a lot of good research, Adobe has a lot of good stuff coming out of its labs, but you never see these things go live because they're just proof of concepts and then they're not going anywhere.

"Now's the time for the geeks in the trenches to stand up and show they can be as innovative as those specialist departments. Chinese developers, for example, are stunning but they're not the poster children of innovation. They do their work and are very pragmatic about it."

Christian argues that we should focus more on improving the web and making the work easier for developers. That's where Yahoo's open strategy comes in. Already developers can write apps to improve search results with SearchMonkey, create their own search engine with BOSS and build widgets for My Yahoo (currently in the US only).

Yahoo Mail is also gradually opening up and at CES Yahoo announced a deal to bring widgets to TVs. The Yahoo User Interface Library was recently praised as one of the most secure open source projects by security company Palamida. "My favourite part of the strategy so far is YQL [Yahoo Query Language]," Christian enthuses. "That's just absolutely nuts. It makes all the hacking we've done over the last few years, with cURL and our own PHP proxies, obsolete. It's like Pipes on a command line. For example, today I used YQL to get the transcripts of Slideshare presentations to display directly with your slides. With a PHP script it could be quite a pain but with YQL it's like five lines of JavaScript. YQL is going to become more and more a scripting environment. It's very powerful."

Scripting Enabled

Last September, Christian organised his own conference, Scripting Enabled. The idea was born out of the BBC's open hack day, Mashed 08, where he presented a screen reader-friendly search interface for its audio archive. Channel 4 was so impressed it offered him money to set up an event focused on accessibility.

Scripting Enabled ran over two days and had 150 attendees and seven speakers. All of the presentations and transcripts have been released under a Creative Commons licence, and anybody who wants to can run their own Scripting Enabled event.

The only rule is that it has to involve real people with real world problems, so that on the second day hackers can come in and tackle these issues. "I wanted to make sure that the community of developers talks to the community of accessibility people, so they realise what technical innovation is possible and how cheap it really is. I built the Easy YouTube Player [a more accessible YouTube viewer: icant.co.uk/easy-youtube] in about six hours. The person that asked if it was possible had offers of £3,000 to £5,000 to build one of those in about three weeks."

Christian might run another Scripting Enabled event this year but in the meantime he'll look into markets he hasn't been to yet such as Australia, Taiwan and Israel. We don't know where Yahoo as a company will be heading in 2009 but Christian, who's also responsible for Twitter hack TweetEffect, stresses he doesn't waste his time looking at headlines and puts his energy into improving the web. "I know for a fact that the people who are here would do the same thing in any other company because they're proud of their work."

In the end, Christian says, developers who are very good at what they do but don't share and don't show an interest in what's going on in the rest of the world will have a hard time this year.


First published in .net Issue 187