A friend of mine is working on a conference in Taiwan about Web 2.0 and I was asked to send in some thoughts. After initially flinching at the use of the Web 2.0 term I found there was a lot I wanted to say. Because I’m cruel and unprincipled I’ve decided to share my verbosity with everyone else as well.
From the top…
The Internet plays a crucial role in the development of information and knowledge societies. This is a network that has reduced the transaction time of digital information to zero. It has reduced the relevance of borders, eroded the meaning of time-zones, and facilitated a massive increase in the sharing of data. Nations increasingly depend on the Internet as an empowerment tool for accomplishing a wide-range of communicative tasks.
The Internet first entered most people’s minds in the late nineties. A bunch of firms appeared with venture capital backing, promised the world and then failed to deliver. Masses of money went into the Internet and was lost. That was the first noticeable phase of the Internet for the general public. Perhaps Tim O’Reilly would call it Web 1.0. Most people used to call it the dot.com economy.
We’re now in the second really noticeable public phase of the Internet. New companies are rising up and old companies are reborn. The post-dot.com market space is called Web 2.0, a signifier of the shift from information transmission on the Internet (static one-way communication) towards information interaction (web services that build a two-way communicative relationship). The old Internet didn’t provide enough to deliver on the promise of communication nirvana. Now the Internet companies have found a way to provide more.
As it stands Web 2.0 means services and products that interact with users and encourage the building of communities instead of customers. Flickr, MySpace and Meebo are all Web 2.0 brands. They all attempt to build a relationship with their users and to create an information repository that can be leveraged to generate revenue. A cynic might suggest that Web 2.0 companies largely try to get a lot of people into one place and to generate data that can be resold to information mining services like Google. Google, in turn, uses information to place targeted advertising.
Web 2.0 has largely been about single-service provision to customers based around the idea of information-sharing. This is the concept of providing simple powerful tools to share and access a certain type of data. Successful Web 2.0 brands also include those that provide information convergence (bringing two or more data source together). An example of a data-convergence brand is Flock, a version of the Mozilla web browser that links into blogging and tagging portals.
Web 3.0 (the newest buzzword on the block) is about the coherent utilization of data to provide increased productivity. Where Web 2.0 has been about community building, Web 3.0 is about increasing productivity. The next ‘hot’ brands on the Internet are likely to be on-demand applications and tools. Google is already entering this field with its Writely and Google Calender beta products. The third generation services will be centered around communication and productivity empowerment, the breakthrough of web services rather than installed software, and what Simon Phipps referred to as substitutability.1
Substitutability might actually be the key determiner of Web 3.0. It’s about the freedom to enter and leave a product or service. It is the embrace of open standards to ensure that customer data is completely portable. In short, it’s the opposite of lock-in, and it is the missing link in the current computer paradigm. It ensures that users ‘own’ their data and that any product or service can access the data. No more import and export filters to try and get Microsoft Word documents into OpenOffice.org. No more different profiles and conversation standards for Yahoo! Messenger and Google Talk. Substitutability will mark the point in Information and Communication Technology (ICT) evolution when the vendors no longer have the power to use information containment and transmission formats as a product in themselves.
Substitutability also allows for consumer confidence in the trial and adoption of new products and services. People can use a service or product until they grow out of it and then to transition to another tool. That sounds like a terrifying concept for companies. It means that if people don’t like a product or service they will leave. They might even leave on a whim, just to try out something new.
Beyond the bluster of ‘unique’ service discourse and ‘killer apps’ the ultimate emerging paradigm of ICT is that of commodity tools. When we move beyond the gloss and excitement of humanity’s discovery of digital communication we see people wishing to use ICT to accomplish real tasks. That means talking to people, buying things, selling things and keeping track of information. The real killer apps will be those that allow the user to accomplish these goals with the minimum of fuss.
In other words, a real Web 3.0 application will probably be something you don’t even notice. You’ll use it every day, it’ll get stuff done for you, but you won’t pay attention to it. It won’t be based around the thrill of discovery like Flickr. It won’t build a ‘community’ of disparate and ultimately shallow connections between people like MySpace. A Web 3.0 application will deliver tangibles. It will be when the Internet grows up.
Now, this is where I’m going to break with the marketing discourse. I don’t particularly like the terms Web 2.0 or Web 3.0. I think they create artificial categories that don’t necessarily reflect the true nature of the ICT evolution that we are experiencing. It’s not like there really was a Web 1.0 that failed, that a ‘new’ Web 2.0 was truly released, or that we’ll see a Web 3.0 actually appear. The web was not ‘released.’ It’s not a product. The Internet evolves. Hundreds of millions of people use it. Tens of thousands of companies develop for it.
The changes, the alterations, everything we have seen are part of the process of developing the Internet. People use stuff, they give feedback (either in discourse or in moving on to new services), and Internet companies reply by generating new tools, products and services. Web communities existed in 1998 (Geocities is a prime example) and they just became more sophisticated over time. Right now we have My Space. In five years we’ll have a better service, one more integrated into people’s real lives.
We should not talk about the changes occurring right now as if they were exclusively part of the Web. This is a far bigger paradigm shift than that. ICT technology is entering the very heart of people’s lives. It’s becoming the key determiner in our communication transactions. To understand this we need to look at the entire digital sphere. We need to look at the Internet, we need to look at the machines on people’s desks, the boxes in people’s living rooms and the phones in their hands. All this stuff is converging to create a unified information gateway.
In the end the Internet will cease to be something we notice. Existing information streams will converge and collapse to form a unified information sphere. ICT will provide a coherent information framework that will form the backbone of knowledge societies. This is not Web 3.0. It’s about rethinking how humanity speaks.