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Web 2.0, Wikis, Commercial Open Source All Came Of Age

Posted by iTech - 2006-01-01

The top tech ideas of 2005 covered a wide terrain. They shared two important traits, both of them fitting in this cautious, post-bubble market.
Each idea gave more power to the user, and so carried on technology's classic democratizing effect.

And each of them extended an old idea, improved and evolved, rather than a radical new concept.

In no particular order, the big tech ideas that gained steam or entered the wider public domain included:

Web 2.0: Coined by Internet guru Dale Dougherty and tech publisher Tim O'Reilly two years ago, Web 2.0 took hold in 2005.

In the strictest sense, the term refers to several separate technologies that make Web sites faster and easier to use. If you've used Google's Gmail service, Yahoo's Flickr photo sharing site or Microsoft's Windows Live, you've seen Web 2.0 in action.

Ajax -- which stands for asynchronous JavaScript and XML -- gives Web 2.0 services the look and feel of desktop software. Rather than seeing a fixed Web page, Ajax can update just portions of a Web page. That means less time fetching data. It's fast.

In a broader sense, Web 2.0 is about harnessing the collective wisdom of users. Web 2.0 does this by making it easy to contribute to and reuse information.

The rival mapping services of Yahoo and Google published what software developers call application programming interfaces, or APIs. These are software hooks that let outsiders link into their sites, creating entirely new services.

Some of these, such as a pirate-themed Yahoo Maps, are silly. Others, such as a mash-up site that combines Google Maps info with gas-station locations and their prices, are inspired.

It's true, as critics argue, that the term is misleading. There's no clear line to demarcate Web 2.0 from earlier incarnations.

In many ways, the Web has been evolving toward the features touted by Web 2.0 fans. Amazon.com for a long time has published its APIs for outside developers.

But 2005 marked a clear shift in the way Web sites function and in how people use the Internet.

The Wiki-fication of the Web: Wikipedia, the much-touted online encyclopedia, turns 5 this month. It hit its stride in 2005, becoming a mainstream hit.

While some consider the Wiki phenomenon as part of the larger Web 2.0 trend, it's really a closer realization of the Web's early promise.

Unlike traditional print and Web reference works, Wikipedia lets anyone add or edit info.

If two heads are better than one, the theory goes, thousands of heads are better still.

This wisdom-of-crowds philosophy has spread to other services, such as Web-site indexing service del.icio.us and citizen media news blog reports.

These sites make it easy for ordinary people to contribute their bit of expertise to the Web's library of knowledge.

With scores of contributors and editors on any given topic, Wikipedia can publish articles far more quickly than traditional media.

The name comes from the Hawaiian word "wiki wiki," or "quick."

This is also a weakness. Because anyone can contribute, it's easy for mistakes, bias and outright vandalism to mar the service.

In an infamous incident, a prank entry falsely linked John Seigenthaler, a former U.S. assistant attorney general, to the assassinations of John and Robert Kennedy.

It appeared on Wikipedia for 132 days before Seigenthaler had it taken down.

Still, supporters say, with the right editorial policies in place, user-contributed content will forever change online media -- and the entire media business.

Commercial open source: The open-source software product called Linux has been around for more than a decade, proving itself in recent years of being ready for prime time.

Unlike most commercial software, Linux is developed by a loose-knit collection of programmers worldwide and shared freely.

Commercial firms such as Red Hat package the software and sell support.

Now a new wave of companies hopes to cash in on the trend with open-source software in lots of other segments.

To wit: MySQL is making a name for itself in databases, JBoss in middleware and SugarCRM in customer relationship management software.

Unlike Linux, which started as a hobby and slowly became a commercial powerhouse, these firms focused on profit from the start.

According to accounting firm PriceWaterhouseCoopers, open-source firms raised $144 million from venture capital and other private investors in the first three quarters of 2005, more than double the same period the year before.

Few, if any, open-source companies make money -- yet.

Many are trying unproven business models. And most stand in the cross hairs of established commercial vendors looking to protect their turf.

But as JBoss founder Marc Fleury puts it, only two things really matter in a company's infancy: cash flow and sales growth. By those measures, most open-source firms say they're going gangbusters.

Desktop search: This may seem like a simple concept -- let users easily find things on their computer. But if it's so easy, why has it taken software makers so long to get it right?

2005 saw the near simultaneous release of desktop search tools from Apple Computer, Google, Yahoo, Microsoft and others.

Going beyond mere file search, desktop search software scans the data within the file. This is a big advance.

A search of, say, "oops" might bring up all the songs in Britney Spears' second album ("Oops, I Did It Again"), that apology you e-mailed weeks ago and an editing note on an old Power Point slide. This happens in an instant, even if "oops" isn't part of the file name.

So instead of trying to remember what they named a file, users can search for what they're actually looking for. It's a much faster way of working, and could change the way people organize their lives.

Several firms have gone a step further, letting users rummage around their computer at the same time they're searching the Web.

Service-oriented architecture: This is the Web's next logical next step -- standards designed to make it easier for software to swap data.

If Web services are the tools for building vision, think of SOA as the blueprint. It's a way of building systems that can talk to each other, regardless of what software they're running or where they're located.

This, proponents say, will make businesses much more agile. Users will be able to overhaul their systems on the fly to adapt to changes in the marketplace.

It could change the software business. Due to the economics of the software market, most businesses must buy vast software suites, even if they need only 10% of the features.

With SOA, they could buy software in a package of modules that provide the exact features they're looking for -- no more, no less.

Thanks to a new economic model and open standards, niche software firms could hold their own against giants. In theory, no one company could dominate any market.

Other technologies have promised similar utopias. This time, SOA fans say, the market has the technology -- and industry cooperation -- to make it happen.

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