Web 2.0

Caution: This article is for people who care about web development, advertising, publishing, and design. All others will probably find it too long, too boring, and too nerdy to be worth their time.

I’ve been writing far too many presentations lately about the way the web has changed over the last year or two. Applications like Flickr, Del.icio.us, Movabletype, WordPress, GMail, Google Maps, Wikipedia, RSS, AJAX, etc have proven for the first time, in a very long time, that innovation and excitement still exist out there, and maybe I haven’t wasted the last ten years of my life. I can honestly say that I am excited about the web for the first time since way before the “bubble” burst, and many, many people share that enthusiasm. Of course, I am still patiently giving my ideas away to an ad agency, waiting for the big one that I think is worth pursuing privately. I hasn’t yet come, but I am sure eventually it will.

In the meantime, I have watched a handful of brilliant ideas, many of which are derivative of old ideas, find unparalleled success. Of course, Google has led the way on a lot of this. GMail, for example, with a few small but major differences from traditional webmail systems, changed the way people think about web-based email. Google Maps, maybe the best example, took a function that others like Yahoo Maps, Mapquest, and countless others have been doing for years, and made them look silly. As a side-effect, catapulted the use of AJAX (javascript as a primary method of accessing data and manipulating the user interface) into the mainstream, caused it to get a name (Jess James Garrett coined the term in this article, in February), and single handedly opened the door to a viable alternative to Flash for “Rich Internet Applications.” Way to go, Google.


So, in the course of writing about this stuff and trying to sell it to clients, I, like many others, have been struggling with finding and communicating the attributes that these new applications of old technology have in common.

A couple of things standout. User experience, for one. As an Information Architect, I preach this stuff, user-centered design, usability, control in the hands of the user, etc. For those of you who don’t know, that’s what I do for a living, I try hard to make big ugly websites better. Information Architecture is defined in O’Reilly’s polar bear book as, “1. The combination of organization, labeling, and navigation schemes within an information system. AND 2. The structural design of an information space to facilitate task completion and intuitive access to content.” Those are my two favorite. 37 Signal’s Signal Vs. Noise recently had a nice discussion of the topic, with no definitive resolution. In any case, it seems that design and technology have come together in a way that is leading to fantastic subtle innovation. Companies like 37 Signals and Adaptive Path, people like Todd Dominey, Ben and Mena Trott, Jon Hicks, Evan Williams, and many, many others, have transcended the worlds of both technology and design, and proven that small teams with expertise and passion in both skills can do a hell of a lot better and more important work than big companies using the traditional methods. It’s my job to help find a way for an agency to make the transformation, and I’ll be honest, it’s a lit harder to make happen than you might think. It’s the lesson Microsoft is about to learn the hard way, and the one Google has known since the beginning. Google’s culture of innovation is one that should be envied and emulated, and the one that prevents them from falling into the same traps as all the others that came before them.

The other obvious attribute these companies, technologies, and “movements” have in common is openness. Open source, open API’s, plugin architectures, and RSS. Many of the systems’ hearts and souls are exposed for the world to see. Most of the systems offer RSS feeds (syndication formatting built right in) to allow for content and data to be used anywhere, not just on the ad supported host site. Many of the advanced systems, particularly the blogging software have robust and open plugin architectures that allow developers to extend the functionality. And 37 Signals, in developing their big web software tools, Basecamp, Backpack, TaDa Lists, and the brand new Writeboard, developed a whole new programming architecture which they released, to the joy of developers everywhere, Ruby on Rails.

So, where am I going with this? I barely know myself. Collectively these technologies, these designs, and these open architectures make up what has been loosely called, Web 2.0, though the definition is still hotly disputed. This week, the Web 2.0 conference will be held in San Francisco. Led largely by, and sponsored almost entirely by, Tim O’Reilly, technology publisher, visionary, and overall good guy, Web 2.0 should help to crystallize these ideas into something more clearly communicable, repeatable, and sellable, and I am actually excited. I won’t be going, unfortunately, though I will be going to Adaptive Path’s upcoming NYC seminar, Designing the Complete User Experience, which should be great, but not nearly as important as this Web 2.0 thing.

Wired just profiled and interviewed Tim O’Reilly in this month’s issue, so you should read that. But, the single most important thing I have read in the last six months is this article by Tim himself about the definition of Web 2.0. If you are a web developer, designer, publisher, content provider, advertiser, or venture capitalist, this article is an absolute must read. It does the best job I have seen of putting framework around this whole environment. Seriously worth your time.

In conclusion, Web 2.0 is the future of the web as we know it. Emily Chang is now keeping a consolidated list of Web 2.0 applications at eHub, which is worth a look every now and again if you are looking for great new web applications. Things are changing, drastically, and it is moving quickly out of the hands of the innovators and into the mainstream. There are some big companies that had better get on board now, because the shift will be dramatic, and they’ll be left with their pants down like they were in 1994 when the internet shit hit the fan. I’ll leave you with this great comparison from the O’Reilly 2.0 article that does a good job of framing the changes…

Web 1.0   Web 2.0
DoubleClick –> Google AdSense
Ofoto –> Flickr
Akamai –> BitTorrent
mp3.com –> Napster
Britannica Online –> Wikipedia
personal websites –> blogging
evite –> upcoming.org and EVDB
domain name speculation –> search engine optimization
page views –> cost per click
screen scraping –> web services
publishing –> participation
content management systems –> wikis
directories (taxonomy) –> tagging (“folksonomy”)
stickiness –> syndication

[via a whole heck of a lot of visionaries better at this stuff than I am.]

One Comment to “Web 2.0”

  1. robin said something

    Chris, I wish I understood half of what you’ve reported here. Seriously. But, like Wanamaker and his ad spending, maybe I’m doing okay if I understand at least half. Keep it coming.

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