The State of Web 2.0

Now that Web 2.0 has had its mainstream media coming-out party in both Newsweek and Slate recently (here and here), I thought I’d take some time this afternoon and try to get a real sense of the prevailing winds.   Before I go further, I would ask all of you with innate dislike of the term to please hold it in for the length of this piece and actually read it.  And everyone, please share your thoughts in the comments below.  Also note that this is my personal assessment of Web 2.0 and is not official in any way.  Please take everything I say here with a grain of salt but know that the facts presented here are as accurate as I could make them.

Invariably, Web 2.0 is a term you love to hate or hate to love but either way, you’ll know you’ll get folk’s attention by saying it.  I’ve been lucky enough to talk to quite a fair number of people around the country about Web 2.0 in the last few months and hear what they think of it.  An overall picture has begun to emerge out of these conversations.  We’ll get to what exactly Web 2.0 is again in a moment.  But one important ingredient, perhaps the key ingredient, is that it describes the inversion of control of information, processes, and software wholesale over to the users of the Web.  This is because users now generate the majority of content these days and they also provide the attention that drives almost everything online  financially (particularly advertising). And all of us have a uniquely equal access to the global audience of the Web; each and every one of us now has our own world-class pulpit (in the forms of blogs, wikis, and other mechanisms) that is amazingly the equal of any other person on the Web. Web 2.0 has also been successful in spawning almost ten related sub-movements that range from Identity 2.0 to Democracy 2.0.

Torrents of online software for work, collaboration, and community

It turns out that the most popular posts I write by far are my Web 2.0 product summaries.  My first one (The Best Web 2.0 Software of 2005) has had well in excess of 500,000 readers that I know of and has been translated into over a dozen languages.  This not only shows the people power of the Web but also the widespread popular interest there is in good online software.  Each Web 2.0 software list (the other two are here and here) was also a compelling  example of a Web 2.0 meme known as harnessing collective intelligence; the user supplied comments on each post had far more good software listed in them than the main post did and were added purely by interested and enthusiastic readers who felt some site or another was missing.

Now, it does seem the social aspect of Web 2.0 is the the biggest roadblock for acceptance with technical people in the software industry.  When I speak to people about Web 2.0, it’s invariably the programmers and technicians, the on-the-ground folks that get their hands on the code and hardware that seem to think Web 2.0 is the most content free. Yet when I talk to the architects, CTOs, CIOs, and business people at the helm of things, they are already seriously considering the implications of Web 2.0 and are often deep in strategic thinking about it.  Thus, I get little debate about Web 2.0 with the crowd most involved with strategic thinking in software and business, which makes some sense.  Web 2.0 is not a technology, it’s a way of architecting software and businesses.  And some organizations are definitely seeing the value in the Web 2.0 way of doing working.  Also, sites and software that embody many of the tenets of  Web 2.0 continue to appear almost ad infinitum.

The disconnect between the technicians and the architects and CTOs  seems to come particularly from the social aspect of Web 2.0.  It’s this piece that often flips the “bozo bit” of technical people, who often have engineering background that demand explanations in terms of technology and often don’t appreciate the social dimension.  Web 2.0 just doesn’t have that technological bent other than liking Web services, Ajax, and radical decentralization, which bring the services, content, and rich experiences to mass audiences.  Web 2.0 is really a set of related forces, design patterns, and business models that are increasingly emerging onto the world stage.  And these elements frequently defy detailed technical quantification, despite Tim O’Reilly’s consummately well written description of Web 2.0 last year.  It also has not helped that numerous folks have tried to co-opt the term for their own marketing and investment reasons, often without properly understanding what Web 2.0 is.

OK, one more time, what is Web 2.0 again?

For those who don’t follow it all the time, it might even be hard to remember what all the pieces of Web 2.0 are (and keep in mind, these elements are often reinforcing, so Web 2.0 is definitely not a random grab bag of concepts).  Even compact definitions are sometimes a little hard to stomach or conceptualize  But the one I like the best so far is Michael Platt’s recent interpretation just before SPARK.  Keep in mind, the shortest definition that works for me is that “Web 2.0 is made of people.”  However, it’s so short that important details are missing and so here’s a paraphrase of Platt’s summary.

Key Aspects of Web 2.0

– The Web and all its connected devices as one global platform of reusable services and data
– Data consumption and remixing from all sources, particularly user generated data
– Continuous and seamless update of software and data, often very rapidly
– Rich and interactive user interfaces
– Architecture of participation that encourages user contribution

I also wrote a review of the year’s best Web 2.0 explanations a while back and it goes into these elements in more detail if you want it.  But there’s a lot more to Web 2.0 than these high level elements would indicate.  A key aspect not mentioned here, though I cover it in Sixteen Ways to Think in Web 2.0, is the importance of user ownership of data.  The centrality of the user as both a source of mass attention (over a hundred million people, probably 2 or 3 times that many, are online right now) and an irreplaceable source of highly valuable data, generally encourages that the user be handed control of the data they generate.  If control over their own attention data is denied them, they will just go to those who will give them that control.  This gives some insight into the implications of Web 2.0 concepts, which were mostly gathered by examining prevailing trends on the Web.  Forrester is calling the resulting fall out of these changes Social Computing and it’ll be interesting to see what the effects of the widepsread  democratization of content and control will ultimately be a generation from now.

Lest we forget, the online software world, best exemplified by the things we see released on Michael Arrington’s terrific and popular TechCrunch and Emily Chang’s informative and comprehensive eHub, is just in its infancy; we have decades to go. And that’s becaue the Web will be the primary place where the most useful software will be.  Part of this move to the web is because just about everything will ultimately be connected to the Web anyway.  And note that the innovation and power in software is already coming these days from the online, connected world.  Part of it is the unpleasant aspects of our existing software experiences.  People are very tired of synchronizing their data between work, home, and family computers, upgrading and patching their software, and worrying about security and backups.  Ajax has been a force here (covered here in my popular State of Ajax) by allowing the creation of online software that is as good as native software (yes, a few limitations still exist, but can increasingly be worked around).  Ajax is much more powerful because its connected status: it can reach people and information around the world.  Ajax Desktops, as described by Richard MacManus and others are just a small example of the potential.  These desktops are attempting to leverage people’s scarce attention by providing a single collapsed view of everything they care about from bookmarks and feeds, to e-mail, and weather. 

So, what’s happening with Web 2.0?

Tim Leberecht has done some of the best summarizing of the mainstream media’s recent coverage of Web 2.0.  Essentially that Web 2.0 is largely an attempt to make money off of people by riding on their bring-your-own-content (BYOC).  In a certain limited sense, this is true and there are indeed people attempting exactly this.  Peer production has been very successful for certain Web 2.0 companies, particularly ones like DiggFlickr, and Unfortunately, there is a profound paucity in this way of thinking, like in any quick-buck thinking.  In a way it’s very similar to how open source software (OSS) democratized and decentralized control of software creation, commoditizing it with abandon along the way.  And Web 2.0 sites are doing a very similar number on the control structures of society and business.  Web 2.0 represents the unyielding shift towards putting the power to publish, communicate, socialize, and engage, using an almost-dizzying array of methods, in online two-way discourse and interchange.  The Web is the medium, but it’s powered by people.

A somewhat discouraging summary of Web 2.0 was recently written and posted recently at  While I don’t believe they sampled enough sites (and hey, I try to do the same thing below), their end point is correct.  It’s much less about Ajax and tag clouds and much more about being irresistably immersive.  People have to want to stay in the community they find online, and if it’s not there, they won’t be there either.  I think a lot of Web 2.0 software sites will wither and die on the vine because of this problem: namely not building the right social draws and retainers into their designs.  But for every one that does fail, two more will take their place.  The tools for creating online software are making it easy enough that TechCrunch could review online software between now and the end of time and miss most of them.  But the majority of online software isn’t really Web 2.0; they are missing the important pieces that really matter.  David Linthicum recently worried about this in his Infoworld column, wondering if Web 2.0 the term could kill Web 2.0 itself.  I don’t believe it’s a real concern.  Why?  Because the real Web 2.0 software floats to the top like a cork and the techniques are just too powerful and are easy enough to discover on your own, using the tools we have now.

As for other significant Web 2.0 trends, Web 2.0’s techniques are starting to bleed into the enterprise, something I call Enterprise Web 2.0.  The heavyweight and ponderous techniques for enterprise architecture and even SOA are just not anywhere near as vibrant as very similar approaches out in the wild.  The mashup community on the Web is extremely active, even though still in its infancy.  It won’t be long before you see a lot of the lightweight Web 2.0 development techniques and tools, like Ruby on Rails, become mainstream in corporate software development.  We are seeing surprisingly active interest in the conference circuit, with a almost surprising number of sessions on SOA, Ajax, and Web 2.0 in the enterprise in the next few months.  Gartner has even coined the phrase for a SOA model that is compatible with the Web 2.0 world: Web-Oriented Architecture or WOA.

Some Apparent Web 2.0 Trends

– An Increasing Attention Scarcity:  There isn’t enough atttention, or users that supply it, to go around.  Particuarly there’s just too many channels vying for it or existing channels are still dominate the majority of attention.  This will affect the viability of new online entries and force them to create innovative ways to acquire attention.
– Online Social Communities Are A Winning Model – It’s unclear what the monetization is (other than advertising) or the cost of successfully starting one, but many of the fastest growing and most popular places heavily use social software techniques to draw and keep users.  And some begunnung are to acquire valuations in the billions.  (Some Examples: SecondLifeMySpaceFaceBook.).
– The RIA Model Works – The term Ajax was just coined in February of last year, but it looks like it’s here to stay and then some.  Using nothing more than what you find in the browser, Ajax can create great Web platform ready clients that are as good as native clients.  To see the potential, check out the radically advanced Hive7 using nothing more than Javascript.  Expect that XUL, WPF/E, and Flash will give Ajax a bit of a run for its money later this year though.
– The Mashup Phenomenon Will Mature or Wane – Part of the problem appears to be the tools but also the usefulness.  Most mashups aren’t more than a feature or two.  More sophisticated ones are coming, but if compelling mashups don’t materialize in bigger numbers,  the technique could lose mindshare as a model for building composite online software made up from the services of multiple Web sites.
– Traditional Software Vendors Will Struggle in a Web 2.0 World – Microsoft and Google will likely figure it out, though it’s not a sure thing either.  Microsoft has serious product line baggage and Google has healthy challenges in managing its growth and maintaining a sharp focus on strategy.  Google’s latest products don’t seem to have their famous edge, for example.  The smaller, nimbler Web 2.0 startups might continue to be a great source of innovation but it might make sense for Google to acquire startups and  immedatiely spin it off to avoid the “big company effect.”

Finally, here is a quick traffic analysis of some of the Web 2.0 companies I’ve covered in my articles.  Note that some are successful almost beyond description, at least in terms of user adoption.  MySpace is probably the best example. It’s actually going to run out of available users on the Web fairly quickly at its present growth rate (over a million new accounts every 4 days).  Interestingly, some of the more well-known Web 2.0 companies are actually started to see a leveling off effect.  Whether this is because of stiff online competition or boredom with the service, I can’t say, though I would wager there have been effects from both.

In any case, there will be a Web 2.0 conference again this year and the Web 2.0 Journal was launched earlier this year (disclaimer: I am Editor-in-Chief). A new round of Web 2.0 software has also had tremendous successes (MySpace, Flickr, and many others) and a great many people all over the world are actively trying to figure out how to make use of the Web 2.0 concepts before they experience the disruption it could cause their organizations.  Apparently, as frequently unloved as the label is, Web 2.0 is here to stay.  Remaining predictions: 1-The hype is going to ramp down quite a bit this year. 2- People will focus much more on using the ideas and ignoring the Web 2.0 hypesters more often.  And 3- A lot of folks will still hate the term Web 2.0.

What do you think is happening to Web 2.0?

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