Web 2.0: More Than A Buzzword?

Yes, web 2.0 is a big buzzword. That’s not the question. The question is: is it more than that?

I think yes. As someone who’s generally marketing and buzzword averse, it took me a while to arrive at this viewpoint, but I do believe there is a large web transition under way. That transition will have a major impact on our customers in publishing, and on the web in general.

First, some definitions. Here is the seminal paper on web 2.0, written by Tim O’Reilly. In short, to believe that web 2.0 is real, you must accept that a bunch of seemingly unrelated, incremental changes add up to one big change.

Detractors argue that web 2.0 is merely marketing hype to promote the eponymous O’Reilly conference. Cynics argue that web 2.0 is venture capital obsession, designed to fuel Bubble 2.0. (With official slogan: “please god, just one more bubble.”)

Believers, however, argue that Tim O’Reilly has done everyone a great service, helping us to avoid a boiled frog problem, by recognizing that the sum of these changes does indeed amount to a whole new web.

O’Reilly first defines web 2.0, bottom up, with a series of examples. I’ve plucked my favorite ones, below.

Web 1.0 –> Web 2.0
DoubleClick –> AdSense
Ofoto –> Flickr
Britannica online –> Wikipedia
Personal websites –> Blogs
Screen scraping –> Web services
Publishing –> Participation
Directories (taxonomy) –> folksonomy

He then extracts a number of core tenets for web 2.0:

  1. The web as a platform
  2. Harnessing collective intelligence
  3. Data is the next “Intel inside”
  4. End of the software release cycle
  5. Lightweight programming models
  6. Software above the level of a single device
  7. Rich user experiences

I won’t comment on all of them, but I will provide color on a few, along with the impact I think this transition will have on our publishing and information industry customers.

The web is indeed transitioning from a tool to a platform. It began as a tool for human end-users to browse information. There is no question that the web is evolving to a platform for programs to communicate information to each other. This is exemplified with the “screen scraping –> web services” transition, above. APIs to Amazon.com and Google Maps, for example, are two simple examples of this.

I agree with the spirit of “data is the new Intel inside,” but not surprisingly think there is a better way to say it: content is the new Intel inside.

Let me expand a bit on this.

  • I am always amazed that people repeatedly forget that the content industry is about content; not about the pipes that deliver it. I’ll never forget about two decades ago when the telecom industry became obsessed with “convergence” and decided to vertically integrate with Hollywood, because after all, entertainment was just bits. Many painful failures later, telecom discovered that entertainment was, indeed, entertainment and that knowing a lot about telecom gave you no credentials whatsoever in entertainment. (Perhaps in the past when companies had a better ability to control distribution, the pipes mattered more. But not today — as long as the movement to recreate that past does not succeed.)
  • Thanks to the Internet becoming a platform it is now easier than ever to add value to content by integrating it with other content. Think mashups like mixing Google Maps with Craigslist, as done by Housingmaps. (For a long list of mashups, see here.)
  • There’s more to content integration than mashups. Many of our publishing / information industry customers use MarkLogic precisely to drive what they call “content manufacturing” — which is the process of taking their content (e.g., medical journals), supplementing with licensed content from other sources, and then transforming into a format on top of which they can build new information services.
  • There’s more to content than content. The next step is to literally put that content in context by (1) filtering it to what a given person/role wants and (2) integrating it into an application designed to improve the productivity of specific tasks. Example: so we have 1,000 medical journals, a dozen medical textbooks, and lots of licensed content to boot. How can we get the right slice of that content and put it in the right interface to help a nurse in an oncology ward? A doctor in an ER? A pathologist in the lab? We have several publishing customers moving in this direction as well.
  • This, in turn, means that publishers are becoming application developers. As publishers transition their product from book/journal to online service, they are effectively building hosted content applications for their customers. I first realized this about a year ago at the NFAIS 2005 conference and saw an excellent talk by Jay Chakrapani from Wolters Kluwer, slides here. As I listened to him speak, my reaction was — whoa, contextual design is what we software companies do, not publishers! And then I realized that if publishers wanted to add value through both finding/integrating content and putting it in context, that they would inexorably be dragged in the direction of software companies.

(Speaking of design, I need to insert a plug for two of my favorite books on the topic. The Design of Everyday Things by Donald Norman and About Face: The Essentials of User-Interface Design by Alan Cooper.)

So the publishers of the future look a lot less like talent pickers, capital investors, and channel controllers and look a lot more like content suppliers, content aggregators, and software as a service (SaaS) providers.

This means that, among other things, as publishers transition to methodologies like contextual design on the design front, that will also move away from traditional waterfall software development methodologies towards more iterative models like agile, spiral, or iterative software development. This is what all major websites do today, and is part of the web 2.0 “end of the software release cycle” tenet cited by O’Reilly above.

Since this has become a pretty long post, we’ll address my last fun topic — from publishing to particpation — in a subsequent post.

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