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Web 2.0: The Web Reboots

Smarter, slicker, more social, and more fun!

By Bill Camarda

Maybe you’ve noticed that the Web stuff you’re using these days looks slicker. You’re not just filling out forms anymore: you’re using real software – and some of it’s better than the best “desktop” applications you’re accustomed to. There’s more audio and video. And, best of all, you can connect with other people in all kinds of new ways: it’s not just “you’ve got mail” anymore!

All these changes are interrelated, and there’s a catch-all term that covers them all: “Web 2.0.”
 

What exactly is Web 2.0? You’ll find plenty of different definitions, but the folks who actually invented the term – Tim O’Reilly and his colleagues at O’Reilly Publishing – still have the best. In this article, we’ll start with theirs – but we’ll translate it into simpler English for the rest of us – and we’ll show you what’s in Web 2.0 for you.

Not your grandpa’s Web

Web 2.0 starts with viewing the Web not just as a place to display information or sell stuff, but as a “platform” for delivering services. That’s why Google is the quintessential “Web 2.0” company: just explore Google’s site, and you’ll find dozens of services: from the prosaic (email)... to the useful-if-familiar (maps)... to experimental stuff that’s right at the leading edge. (One Google service you might not have noticed yet: the nifty Google Trends, which helps you discover what’s just about to get sizzling hot. With Google Trends, it’s easier than ever to remain the coolest mom on the block!)

Occasionally, you’ll need to download software to use these Web “services” – as in the case of Google Earth, which can display satellite images, and even photos of galaxies captured by the Hubble Space Telescope. But most of the value is coming to you across the Web. (That’s a big change from the old days, when the important stuff came in a shrink-wrapped box – like, for example, the Microsoft Encarta encyclopedia, or Rand McNally’s TripMaker route planning software.)

More data, new things to do with it

These Google tools perfectly exemplify O’Reilly’s second Web 2.0 “rule”: they draw on immense sources of data, and make that data available in new ways to do new things. For example, Pandora’s “music discovery and recommendation service” starts with a huge database of songs, but it doesn’t stop there. Pandora’s “Music Genome Project” has analyzed that music using up to 400 distinct musical characteristics, so Pandora can recommend and play songs you’re almost certain to love, based on what you already love.

Yet another example: using Zillow’s real estate tools, you can browse houses in your neighborhood online, get estimates of your current home’s value, and even post information about your own house – including the Make Me Move® price you’d sell your house for right now, even if you weren’t looking to sell.
 
Zillow doesn’t just capture “zillions” of pieces of data that were already available to real estate professionals, and make them available to regular folks: it welcomes contributions from homeowners themselves. Which, too, is quintessential “Web 2.0.” Returning to O’Reilly’s definition, Web 2.0 sites “harness the collective intelligence” of huge communities of individuals.

Collective intelligence and the “long tail”

If you’ve ever read a customer-contributed Amazon review, you know the power of collective intelligence. (Take our word for it, this terrifies old-fashioned companies who’ve always tightly controlled messages about their products, services, and brands.) Consider a statistic: amongst “active” Internet users, fully 34% post opinions about products, services, or brands.
 
That’s millions of opinions – and the more opinions which come together on the same site, the more valuable that site becomes. (And it highlights another of O’Reilly’s Web 2.0 rules: the most successful Web 2.0 sites trust users to play a central role as content “co-developers.”)

With so many opinions out there, there are at least one or two useful opinions about nearly everything -- which brings us to yet one more characteristic of Web 2.0: its use of the “long tail.” What’s the long tail? The millions of tiny, niche audiences out there that used to be too small to be worth bothering with.
 
Once upon a time, huge audiences watched just a few TV shows: if your tastes were offbeat, you were out of luck. But the Web, and Web 2.0 in particular, is great at making small audiences add up to something huge.
 
Take, for instance, YouTube. Sure, millions of folks are watching Tina Fey as Sarah Palin, or Miss South Carolina Teen USA, or whatever’s hot this week. But the vast majority of YouTube’s videos have only a tiny audience. And if you add up all those small audiences, they dwarf the “large” audiences reached by the most successful videos. If you can reach those audiences at low cost, as YouTube can, you can make a fortune.

Any device, anywhere
 
Of course, the more overall users a site can reach, the better off it’ll be. Time was, software was written either for Windows, or the Macintosh, and if you had the wrong computer, you were out of luck. But Web 2.0, like the Web itself, aims to work from any device: your computer, your cellphone, whatever.
 
Of course, not all Web 2.0 sites and applications do that yet, but that’s where they’re headed. And they may just get there. One big reason why: the people who create these sites have much better tools nowadays, and they’ve also gradually learned better ways to build Web software.
 
For example, using a set of techniques called “AJAX,” Web programmers have learned to use familiar tools to build richer, easier-to-use Web sites that can run on more devices. If you’ve ever used Google’s Gmail, or Flickr photo sharing, or Zoho’s popular online productivity tools, you’re using AJAX.
 
AJAX isn’t the only new technology that’s making it easier to build slick Web 2.0 sites and applications. Adobe has released Flex, a set of tools for building “rich” Internet applications that will run on any device that can run Flash. (“Rich?” We don’t mean wealthy. We mean more interactive, more sophisticated, with more video and audio.)
 
To see what Flex can do, check out Sherwin-Williams’ great new interactive Color Visualizer – a great way to figure out what color scheme to use in your bedroom, before you go to the paint store. Or visit Weight Watchers, and try out TurnAround, its powerful tool for helping you manage your own weight loss. Or JukeFly, an online music player that lets you listen to your own MP3 collection from any Web browser on Earth. These are applications that would have been difficult to build with older technologies – and they’re coming in droves.
 
If you don’t care about the technology, that’s perfectly fine: you don’t have to. All you need to know is that the Web is getting richer, more social, and more fun to use. That’s what “Web 2.0” is about – and it’s only going to get better.

Bill Camarda has been writing about technology for families, kids, and others for 25 years, starting as an editor for Scholastic's Family Computing Magazine. His 18 computer books include Upgrading & Fixing Networks For Dummies and The Cheapskate's Guide to Bargain Computing. He lives in Ramsey, NJ with his wife and 14-year old son.



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