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MashupCamp--a new kind of get-together

Nearly 300 people show up for a celebration of custom applications and a new-model technology conference. Photos: Techies gather at MashupCamp

MOUNTAIN VIEW, Calif.--It's 7:54 a.m., and I'm nine minutes late for MashupCamp.

No matter, though. MashupCamp--two days of discussions about the custom applications that come from the merger of application program interfaces--isn't like a normal conference. So showing up a few minutes late? Par for the course.

Photos: At MashupCamp

Given that the event has drawn representatives and sponsorships from many of the titans of technology, including Microsoft, Google, Yahoo, Adobe and the like, it may not be immediately apparent how it's different. That is, besides the fact that the main topic of discussion involves applications--such as Paul Rademacher's --that are generally available to the public for free.

But soon after I came through the doors of the Computer History Museum here, which is playing host to the event, things started to become clear.

For one, there was no schedule yet. Or rather, there was a whiteboard with a grid of times and rooms on it that was entirely empty. For another, the attendees had paid nothing to get in to this nonprofit event and their only barrier to entry had been to sign up on the event's wiki before space ran out.

At around 8:30 a.m., most of the 300 or so on hand here filed into an auditorium where co-organizer David Berlind proceeded to invite anyone in the crowd with a mashup they wanted to show off to step forward and introduce it. One caveat: They got only 30 seconds to explain their projects. It was like Demo on crack. (Berlind is executive editor of business technology for ZDNet, which is owned by CNET parent company CNET Networks).

But come up they did. In all, 40 people made their way up to the stage and, yes, in less than 30 seconds each made a quick pitch for their mashup.

For example, one company talked about a mashup it was developing that aims to mix mapping software with data marking the locations of trees planted by San Francisco's Friends of the Urban Forest.

Another talked about plans to make it easy for dating sites to integrate astrology data.

The race for space
The mashup that the event's producers now dealt with was the little matter of the empty schedule and a whole lot of two days left to fill.

So, in a distinctly nontraditional way, Berlind once again invited the participants to make the event happen. In this case, that meant asking anyone who wanted to lead a discussion to come up, explain what they wanted and then claim a spot on the schedule.

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Video: MashupCamp brings minds together
David Berlind, a MashupCamp organizer and ZDNet editor, demonstrates the ins and outs of mashups from the floor of this year's "unconference for the uncomputer."

And since the various meeting rooms here differ significantly in size, it was important for sessions to be in the right size rooms. So each session leader concluded his explanation--and it really was a whole lot of "his," since out of 28 sessions Monday, 27 were led by men, and out of almost 300 attendees, no more than 15 were women--by asking how many people were interested in participating. If a lot of people raised their hands, he would claim a larger room. If not, a smaller one.

For an observer, this was one of the best parts of the whole experience: Watching what had been an empty schedule fill out quickly and in an orderly, sensible fashion. There would be few sessions of 15 people in a room for 100, and few begging for more space.

The nontraditional format was a major reason many of the people showed up Monday. Another thing that felt very different was some of the MashupCamp watchwords.

For example, one laid out the modus operandi of the sessions: "Whoever comes are the right people. Whatever happens is the only thing that could have. Whenever it starts is the right time. When it's over, it's over."

Another was "the law of two feet," which stated: "If during the course of the gathering, any person finds themselves in a situation where they are neither learning nor contributing, they must use their two feet and go to some more productive place."

For many, that more productive place was the "Monetization and business models" of mashups session. At least 65 swarmed into the room for approximately 90 minutes of talk about how to make money with the custom applications.

There ended up being no consensus, other than on how to define the various categories of mashup creators and identify which ones were likely to generate income in one way or another.

Among those deemed likely to be profitable were those creating APIs (application programming interfaces) that other mashup producers would want to buy; those giving their APIs away for free, but charging for premium services; those creating mashups that attract sponsors; and those mashups, like Rademacher's HousingMaps, that get their creators jobs at companies like Google.

Following that session, many of the participants moved onto another one, about venture capitalists.

Oddly, that session didn't revolve around what kinds of mashups were likely to get funding. In the end, it seemed that the purpose of the panel, led by three actual VCs, was to educate mashup creators about how the VC industry works and what they should expect if they ever tried to get funding for their projects.

Similarly, another session, led by Stanford Law School professor Larry Lessig, focused on the nonprofit public-license organization Creative Commons. Many expected the session would address the specifics of how mashup creators could go about using APIs from commercial companies like Yahoo or Microsoft. Instead, the discussion was an interesting, though much more general, seminar on the peculiarities of American copyright law.

Yet throughout the computer museum, happy techies abounded. The real point of the event, it turned out, was networking. Indeed, in every corner, two or three people were huddled over laptops, showing off or viewing new mashups, talking about projects and geneerally geeking out.

This whole event was organized in two months, and it came off Monday--with another day of sessions, demonstrations and networking to go Tuesday--with no visible hitches. Even the Wi-Fi worked.

Perhaps the reason behind MashupCamp's success lies in the exasperation most attendees feel these days with traditional conferences.

"The amazing thing about these camps, using open space methodology, is they shouldn't work," said Ross Mayfield, CEO of Socialtext, which makes social software for collaboration. "Like a wiki, it turns out that some very simple and open rules have shockingly positive results--because people, on the whole, are good. Open events like these have become almost commonplace in the Valley. In fact, I'd say they are a key driver for the current wave of innovation. One part wiki, one part space and two parts people, add water, and voila!"