The Internet is evolving. Whereas once it served mostly as a conduit for data today the World Wide Web is turning into something more akin to a giant operating system an immense interactive platform on which fullblown applications run in your browser and collaboration occurs in real time.
New technologies and new ideas are helping to shape the Internet into what some are calling Web .. MySpace.com ThinkFree.com and Digg.com represent a wave of dynamic sites that take full advantage of new models of collaboration. Today's Web can facilitate sharing as easily as it can accept your blog about what you ate yesterday upload your vacation photos or post your book review on Amazon.com.
In addition shrinkwrapped software traditionally installed one disc at a time on individual machines is in danger of becoming a late thcentury anachronism. On the evolving Internet software is becoming a service not a set of products similar to buying a seat on a flight rather than owning an airplane.
"The key to this new business model is the idea of creating of being a part of an ecosystem with others delivering services and content that will be remixed" says David Cearley vice president of emerging trends at the technologyresearch firm Gartner.
The online world of the near future promises to fundamentally alter our perception of the Internet from a static twoway tool for information and commerce into a thriving virtual global community. To understand where the Web is headed a look at its past and the intentions of its inventors might be in order.
Content Conquers Community
Some of the pillars of Web . social networking usergenerated content and software as a service (SaaS) draw on some of the Web's oldest values. "In the early days of the Web and the Internet before that it was very much a platform for sharing" says Phillip Evans a senior vice president at the Boston Consulting Group (BCG).
The early Internet's reasonforbeing was largely to enable informationsharing and collaboration among researchers. Many early Web sites were designed to share information of all kinds.
Then came the tech boom of the s a period that could be likened to the Big Bang. Venture capital seemed to rain from above and the number of sites on the Web expanded almost instantaneously. Suddenly the researchoriented universe of the Internet had to accommodate a host of other purposes such as entertainment ecommerce and online dating.
"Content Is King" was an oftcited expression you might have heard in those days. It was the rallying cry of major corporations like TimeWarner and Viacom which since they owned so much content were selling the idea that it was a lure powerful enough to move Web traffic their way.
Many Web sites in that period of rapid expansion were looking to become selfcontained publishers and providers. "In the initial Web" says Evans "the business model was a business that owned everything." There was a rush to buy acquire and label with each site becoming a walled city of sorts. Web users hopped from gate to gate picking up favorites and getting used to the specificity.
Then the boom turned into a bust. When dotcoms started going bankrupt the Web cosmos was left with lots of empty space. But some shining stars endured.
Internet pioneer Dale Dougherty cofounder of O'Reilly Media reportedly was the first to use the term Web . to describe a new wave of user activity interactive technologies and business models. Gartner's Cearley says Web sites such as eBay and Amazon.com deserve credit for blazing a trail.
"Whether you want to call it Web . or . depends on emphasis and perspective" says BCG's Evans. "Everything I can think of that is called Web . existed years ago. EBay is Web . but it is years old."
Amazon eBay and many other sites syndicate their services and add value to their offerings through what their users provide. On eBay for example all auctions are generated completely by the users. On Amazon usersubmitted reviews have become a familiar and highly desired feature for the site's customers.
With technologies such as Really Simple Syndication (RSS) and Atom anyone can freely and readily publish text or other media on the Web. Blogs and wikis are rewriting the book on selfexpression and the pursuit of knowledge.
In all of recorded history there has never been a better time to share your comments about anything with everyone. That used to be called gossiping conversing or publishing. Now all three can be united in a stream of expression to which others freely subscribe.
Thin Is In
From a business point of view usergenerated or annotated content has two obvious and huge advantages: The costs of developing large amounts of frequently changing content are kept to a minimum and users are helping to spread the word about sites that offer user feedback.
Back before the dotcom bust many Web ventures appeared to be little more than publicity engines with URLs attached. But now Evans notes the new Web is tapping much more into the public as a valuable resource an approach that has wound up favoring "very very thin business models."
How thin? "Craigslist has stolen a large portion of the classified ad market but only has something like employees" Evans says. (For the record craigslist.org had employees as of this April.)
But people have been creating sharing and cataloging content on the Internet since its beginnings. Why are so many sites that encourage participation now blossoming into successful businesses?
The answer is bandwidth. "Something like YouTube obviously couldn't have worked before" says Evans referring to the site where users share home videos and found footage. Similarly audiobased peertopeer networks podcasting and photosharing sites would have been exercises in frustration without the wide availability of broadband services. In roughly percent of adult Americans used highspeed broadband at home; in the number is percent according to the Pew Internet & American Life Project.
Jonathan Crow director of marketing at ThinkFree.com agrees that bandwidth is a key to his company's success. Although ThinkFree was founded in it wasn't until that it released what is now its signature attraction Microsoft Officecompatible wordprocessing spreadsheet and presentation software that operates online right in the browser. ThinkFree allows you to upload edit save and download documents in their native Office formats.
"We had first released an online version in but it wasn't feasible" Crow says. It became feasible when a critical mass of users had broadband access he says because Java applets have to download to the desktop on first use. That takes only seconds or so on a DSL line according to Crow but much longer using dialup speeds.
The continued development of Java the versatile programming language that powers so much of the Web also was critical to increasing the functionality and stability of ThinkFree's hosted application and to decreasing the download size.
The Webasplatform is adding new planks every day. Google Spreadsheets and Windows Live are among the most visible examples. Although centralized applications would seem to return us to the days of serverasking and clientaspawn the pioneering Salesforce.com touts them as part of the movement toward democratization.
Founded in Salesforce has one of the longest histories of hosting business applications for customerrelationship management (CRM) marketing and more on a subscription basis. With subscribers the company caters to onthego business users. Its AppExchange platform allows people to subscribe to any of several hundred applications some of which have been uploaded by small vendors that couldn't reach a large audience on their own.
Salesforce executives see SaaS as a great equalizer for smaller companies. "Ten years ago" says Adam Gross Salesforce.com's vice president of developer marketing "unless you were a Fortune company you couldn't implement a sophisticated CRM. We've helped to radically democratize business services."
Salesforce.com is also merging the utility of application hosting with the benefits of social networking. You now can make a conference call from within a Salesforce.com app using Skype the Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) phone service.
Another kind of combination has emerged from the tendency of Web users to share and remix information: Mashups are what you get when you integrate different sets of data to create brandnew services or products.
In a mashup a set of information is mapped onto another set usually on the fly. Mashups first gained prominence among music lovers as DJs would take seemingly disparate tracks from different artists eras or genres and combine them into a satisfying unified performance.
Now highpowered business applications are starting to harmonize. Google Maps is a favorite playground for mashup entrepreneurs who have created new businesses by augmenting realworld maps with information on crime apartment rentals and property taxes. BCG's Evans counts usersupplied information such as the annotations to the content on YouTube as a kind of mashup as well.
Trulia.com is what happens when a search engine gets mashedup. On that site you search for real estate listings and the property you select is shown through satellite imagery and maps from Google. As with other mashups the site shares information between sources serves as a Web platform for an original application and provides a unique value only to be found on the Internet.
A Third Act?
Will there be a Web .? Are there trends now hidden in the virtual bushes that will one day make such an imprint that we will be forced to acknowledge another step in the evolution of the Internet?
"I don't think this is where the Web ends" says Gartner's Cearley. In his view the next evolution of the Internet will be "the realworld Web" which will be characterized by sensor networks locationsensitive mobile devices tracking chips contextsensitive information and an expanded "semantic Web."
"Right now the Web is focused on participation. With the 'realworld Net' it will understand preferences" Cearley says. This . version in his view could build on . with personal profiles that are valid across many sites calendars that make doctors' appointments for you based on patterns of behavior and searches based on attributes rather than words.
In any ecosystem each participant first fights for its particular turf and then at some point decides to build a society with the others. Web . built the ecosystem and Web . is making it flourish as a participatory environment.
Perhaps if Cearley is correct . will allow the Web to understand itself.