(I'm writing a periodic column for the Financial Times. Here's the one that appeared on Wednesday.)
So World Wide Web 2.0 is now upon us?
From my perspective, what’s happening feels more like Web 3.0 - and it’s just a hint of what’s yet to come.
We are barely a decade and a half into the existence of the web, the network of networks intertwined around our ever-smaller planet. The elemental units haven’t changed much, but the web’s functions have evolved in a dramatic way.
The first web was fairly static, and it was basically a read-only affair. For the most part, we’d simply download text and images from remote sites that were updated periodically with new text and graphics.
There were hints, early on, of what was to come.
The first big shift - to what I prefer to consider version 2 - came when the web became more of a read-write system. This was a huge change, and it’s still in progress.
Now, writing online wasn’t exactly new. E-mail has always been about writing.
Bulletin board systems and Usenet “newsgroups,” which got their start in the 1980s, were places where people could write what they thought. Chat and forum applications helped turn America Online into a powerhouse, and message boards became a popular web function in the 1990s.
Personal websites from companies such as GeoCities (later acquired by Yahoo) helped everyday people put up their own sites quickly. Such pages, however, tended toward dullness and infrequent updating.
The big change in the read-write sphere came about because of applications such as weblogs, the personal journals that put newer material at the top, and wikis, sites on which anyone can edit any page. Not only could people make their own sites, but they could update them easily and rapidly.
Blogs have been especially important in the world of the read-write web.
They are far more than the “what I ate for breakfast” diaries of cliche; they have become a key part of a growing, complex global conversation.
We are moving quickly beyond text and pictures in this version of the web, to audio and video.
The cost of the gear we need to make high-quality content is plummeting while the power and ease of use continue to grow.
And then comes the latest web. This is where it gets really interesting.
The emerging web is one in which the machines talk as much to each other as humans talk to machines or other humans. As the net is the rough equivalent of a computer operating system, we’re learning how to program the web itself.
An operating system offers programmers something called an "applications programming interface," or API. The APIs are essentially shortcuts for programmers who want to use underlying capabilities of the operating system, such as displaying text or printing, and they help products interoperate with each other.
The electric outlet in the wall is, to stretch the metaphor, an API. A manufacturer making a product that uses electricity can equip it with a plug that fits into the socket.
A variety of web APIs, offered by companies such as Google, Yahoo! Amazon and others, is letting programmers create new kinds of applications by wiring together various functions into what are called “web services”.
E-commerce has always been a web service, but when we can mix and match from various sites, by pulling specific information from their rich databases, we are moving into an entirely new sphere.
From my perspective, this gets most intriguing when people start wiring web services together to create entirely new kinds of applications.
That’s what Erik Benson, a programmer and blogger, did when he created a site called All Consuming, which shows what bloggers are saying about specific books.
Valdis Krebs, using web APIs to analyse book-buying habits, unsurprisingly found little overlap among people who buy books with a left-leaning perspective with those who buy right-wing volumes.
If the web is becoming an operating system in its own right, can anyone monopolise it the way Microsoft did on personal computers? As long as the web’s basic functions remain open, the threat is more theoretical than real.
Let’s hope it stays that way.