Friday, December 7, 2007

The Emergence of Web 2.0

Just this morning, I came across an interesting article in The New York Times. Dr Jerry Gordon, a dentist in Pennsylvania, had directed a 10-minute informational video on a root canal procedure that he had posted on YouTube so that potential patients could see how easy and painless it was. This video has been viewed more than 11,000 times in the two months since it was put up – a definite boost to Dr Gordon’s business and that of many other dentists.

Just last week, one of our senior executives used the break at our business session to bring up an enormously funny video spoof about Mr Bush and Ms Rice – again on YouTube. It had all of us in splits for the three or four minutes that it ran – a welcome break from the serious sessions. My own favourites, on YouTube, are the video clips of discourses by Paramahamsa Nithyananda, the young and articulate Master who brings tremendous clarity to matters of the soul, with such simplicity and lightness.

As many of you may be aware, YouTube is just one of the many applications of the next generation of web sites – collectively labeled Web 2.0. In this article, my attempt is to build a context around the emergence of this powerful new paradigm, which goes beyond IT and the Internet to change the way people will communicate, collaborate and create in the years to come.

Early Web (1989-95): The World Wide Web began in 1989 as an initiative of the European Council for Nuclear Research, as a way for researchers to share information electronically. It quickly evolved into a global information system based on the Internet. With browser technology gaining momentum, mainly due to Netscape, many business organizations started putting up their own web sites, mainly to disseminate information about themselves to the world – sophisticated ‘brochureware’. The first generation Web, therefore, was largely to facilitate unidirectional, one-to-many type communication.

Dot Com Era (1995-2002): With the emergence of HTML 2.0 and CGI, technologies that enabled two-way interaction, e-commerce became a possibility on the Web. New companies emerged, which threatened to fundamentally change the way business was done. ‘Brick and mortar’ companies found themselves caught off-guard and quickly scrambled to set up their own e-commerce sites.

Over time, this exuberance led up to a frenzy, with venture money chasing the flimsiest of ideas -- while the mainstream companies were desperately trying to catch up -- sinking money in several failed e-commerce initiatives. The crash of 2001 ensured that new funding virtually dried up, unviable ventures downed shutters, corporations did a major re-evaluation of new initiatives resulting in drastically reduced budgets, and the entire world slowed down a bit (post 9/11)! The focus shifted from innovation to viability and efficiency.

This level of exuberance and ensuing excess is not uncommon in any exciting new technology development. In the early 1900s, when automobile technology was looking promising, there were more than 100 automobile companies in the US. Within a decade or two, the figure was whittled down to a handful, with most companies going out of business. The only difference during the Dot Com boom was that this phenomenon led to thousands of startups, not tens; it was global and not restricted only to the US and the bust and clean-up happened in just a few years and did not need decades – as a result of the ‘Flatter World’.

Only a few companies that emerged during the Dot Com days could survive and cross the chasm to becoming large, mainstream enterprises – notably, companies like Amazon, Yahoo and eBay. However, the Web had a bigger impact than throwing up a few new players. Inspired by the Dot Com start-ups, all mainstream organizations evolved their own e-commerce applications. These Web 1.0 applications (as we can now label them) changed the way organizations, commercial or otherwise, interacted with their customers and suppliers. It improved service levels by making self-service available. It empowered customers by enabling them to transact business 24 / 7, from anywhere in the world. It brought down transaction costs and lead times on activities like travel, banking and shopping. It brought elements of Adam Smith’s ‘Perfect Market’ into reality by enabling quick, online price and feature comparisons. It started to increase the bargaining power of consumers.

Web 1.0 was characterized by bi-directional communication and interaction – a distinct improvement over the earlier generation of static web sites. The interactions, however, were still hub and spoke – with the web application interacting with many people and they, in turn, interacting with the application. While applications like Amazon brought some level of community and sharing of interests, it was under centralized control. The resounding success of sites like Google bears testimony to the continued relevance of Web 1.0 applications.

The Emergence of Web 2.0

I attribute the emergence of the Web 2.0 paradigm to three main influences – the evolution of interaction and community-building tools, the open source movement and peer-to-peer networking.

The rising popularity of instant messaging (in the US context) and SMS (in the rest of the world), chat rooms, bulletin boards and social networking sites have all pointed to an increasing need for people to form communities around their friends, their hobbies and their professional interests. It was only natural that these should evolve into more sophisticated interaction and community building-sites as the bandwidth availability increased and technology became more sophisticated. The result was the class of Web 2.0 sites like Second Life, MySpace and FaceBook. Sites that support Weblogs – blogs for short – provide a mechanism for every netizen to create news or share his views within his own interest group, as well as with anyone who is interested in it.

The open source movement, popularized by Linux, demonstrated that with strong leadership, simple rules for collaboration, and community-enforced participation disciplines, hundreds of programmers could come together to create and evolve world-class operating systems and tools, built in record time, leveraging just the labor of love! In contrast, organizations like Microsoft spend billions of dollars and many years to create the next generations of their base platforms and tools.

In my own experience, at Mastek, we have handled several large and complex IT programs and I know how difficult it is to get tens of programmers, let alone hundreds, to work in a synchronized fashion to create new applications. Therefore, I am always amazed at the sheer elegance and effectiveness of the open source movement.

The open source movement inspired Web 2.0 sites like Wikipedia, demonstrating the sheer magnitude of outcomes that could be achieved with true global collaboration. With a handful of employees, Wikipedia harnesses the efforts of tens of thousands of volunteers across several continents to produce an encyclopedia that is 15 times bigger than Encyclopedia Brittanica and almost as accurate.

Napster, on the other hand, proved that a simple site, with an efficient format for storing and sharing music (MP3) could be a boon for young people to swap music and thus save on their allowances. Unfortunately, this violated the copyrights owned by several music companies, who forced it to shut down. It took a Steve Jobs to capitalize on this opportunity, sign up deals with some of the major music companies and launch iTunes and the iPod, a multi-billion dollar market opportunity that brought Apple back into the limelight.

Although Napster died, the concept of peer sharing remained, leading to Web 2.0 sites like YouTube for sharing videos, Flickr for photographs and Digg for news stories. These sites tend to be minimalistic, extremely easy to use for the purpose they serve and provide more of a template that suggests best use rather than a rigid interface. They let users manage the tagging and classification and allow them to ‘vote’ by promoting positioning of items by popularity.

While I have cited examples under each of the influencing forces, it is obvious that each of these examples shares facets of the other influencing forces too. As Web 2.0 evolves, the tools will evolve, making global collaboration as easy as working with your own team next door.

At a deeper level, I see the emergence of Web 2.0 as a platform to support an individual’s quest for meaning. Many people are unable to find opportunities just within their personal and work lives to use their talents and are looking for new platforms to make a contribution and be noticed. People have an inherent need to collaborate and create something much larger than themselves. Some people use organizations like the Rotary Club and Lions Club to fulfill this need. Some others use industry associations to make a larger contribution. Web 2.0 is a global canvas where people find their unique niches in life, to make a larger-than-life contribution. Web 2.0 to me, therefore, is much more than an IT or computing paradigm – it’s the way people will communicate, collaborate and contribute to expanding our own knowledge and understanding of the world around us and to improve the possibility of living in synergy with our world.

1 comment:

MHash said...

Its just not the web - its the way its been able to integrates various platforms (read like OSs) and technologies that have made more things possible.
- Hashim