Friday, December 16, 2005

Web 2.0 Explained

You may have seen the term "Web 2.0" tossed around, but what does it mean exactly? In one context it appears to have something to do with Ajax. In another context it appears to have something to do with tags -- like tags in Flickr. It turns out it includes both ideas and much more. It's a grab bag of ideas supposedly driving a rebirth of the Internet.

This makes a dramatic narrative. "Web 1.0" rises from nothing in the mid-1990s. takes business from bricks-and-mortar stores. AOL buys Time-Warner. Every business is an e-business. Then, in 2001, it comes crashing down. We realize bricks-and-mortar stores still make sense. In fact, Wal-Mart has gotten very big indeed. Time-Warner executives wrestle control from the AOL upstarts. The Internet bubble is forgotten and everything is (mostly) back to normal.

Then, the narrative continues, "Web 2.0" rises from the ashes of "Web 1.0". Google and a half dozen smaller entities like Flickr and Wikipedia begin to redefine the Internet. Venture capital pours into hundreds of cool startups and the bubble begins to grow again. Hopefully, it doesn't grow too big, too fast. This version of the Web is actually useful.

But there are problems with this narrative. For example, is Ajax really all it's cracked up to be? Chris McEvoy wrote a spoof of Jakob Nielsen lamenting the problems of Ajax. Although it's a spoof, the arguments are compelling. For example:
Ajax breaks the unified model of the Web and introduce (sic) a new way of looking at data that has not been well integrated into the other aspects of the Web. With ajax, the user's view of information on the screen is now determined by a sequence of navigation actions rather than a single navigation action ... Even worse, URLs stop working: the addressing information shown at the top of the browser no longer constitutes a complete specification of the information shown in the window.

And in his excellent essay on Web 2.0, Paul Graham damns Ajax with faint praise:
Basically, what "Ajax" means is "Javascript now works." And that in turn means that web-based applications can now be made to work much more like desktop ones.

Google Mail, Google Maps and other Ajax applications are great, but are Ajax applications really going to replace desktop applications? What happens when I want to disconnect from the web? Don't get me wrong. I don't think Ajax is going away, but it will not single-handedly topple the desktop.

There are also problems with tags. And there are problems with Wikipedia. There are problems with all the social networking, new democracy technologies. Maybe it's just the sources I read, but it feels like "Web 2.0" is losing share to "Cynicism 2.0".

Near the end of his essay, Paul Graham says:
Google was a pioneer in all three components of Web 2.0: their core business sounds crushingly hip when described in Web 2.0 terms, "Don't maltreat users" is a subset of "Don't be evil," and of course Google set off the whole Ajax boom with Google Maps.

Web 2.0 means using the web as it was meant to be used, and Google does. That's their secret. The web naturally has a certain grain, and Google is aligned with it. That's why their success seems so effortless.

In the end, Google is not an Ajax company. They are not even a search company. Right now, their biggest source of revenue is selling advertisements. They are successful because of the value they provide to their customers. The technology they use is only a means to that end. If the "Web 2.0" startups don't absorb that simple lesson, they are doomed to fail.

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