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Wednesday, October 04, 2006

What the hell is Web 2.0?

Previously I've discussed the problem of broadband uptake in Ireland and how this was linked to the general public being unaware of much of the content that is available on the web and how it is more effectively accessed through a broadband connection. Aside from the plethora of rich media content available such as on or, there is also access to streamed media such as radio and television on or But in many ways these services are just an extension of the offline broadcast media. Yes, they are searchable – and to that extent offer something of a personalised service –but in reality, they are just another vehicle of the one to many broadcast model.

Since the first TCP/IP wide area network went operational on 1 January 1983 (effectively the first iteration of the internet), the majority of sites on the web could be categorised as being nothing more then “broadcasts” or online flyers. They offer static information, updated sporadically with a limited amount of interactivity in the form of email response. Even today, this holds largely true for the majority of corporate websites – whether it is a Hotel in Killarney or the National Broadcaster. However, this is beginning to change. The Web is going through an upgrade - hence the phrase Web 2.0.

Web 2.0, a phrase coined by Tim O’Reilly of O'Reilly Media in 2004, refers to a supposed second-generation of Internet-based services — such as social networking sites, wikis, communication tools, and folksonomies — that let people collaborate and share information online in previously unavailable ways. O’Reilly was using a common software labelling term – whereby variations of software upgrades during beta would be given version numbers such as 1.0, 1.1,2.0 etc. In this sense, he was inferring that the web up until now was Web 1.0. So what features does this next generation of web sites have?

In their first conference opening talk, Tim O'Reilly and John Battelle (author of the amazingly insightful book The Search) summarized key principles they believed characterized Web 2.0 applications as follows:

- the Web as platform
- data as the driving force
- network effects created by an architecture of participation
- innovation in assembly of systems and sites composed by pulling together features from distributed, independent developers (a kind of "open source" development)
- lightweight business models enabled by content and service syndication
- the end of the software adoption cycle ("the perpetual beta")
- software above the level of a single device, leveraging the power of The Long Tail.

So what are some of the main Web 2.0 applications that are driving this new web revolution?

O'Reilly gives examples in his description of his "four plus one" levels in the hierarchy of Web 2.0-ness:[Tim O'Reilly (2006-07-17). Levels of the Game: The Hierarchy of Web 2.0 Applications. O'Reilly radar.]

Level-3 applications: These are the most "Web 2.0" and are applications which are entirely enabled by the Internet, utilising human connections and the network and growing in effectiveness the more people use them. In many ways, these are the “killer apps” which are disrupting a lot of traditional businesses and have grown exponentially due to their user-base. Examples of these are:,,,, Skype, dodgeball, and Adsense.

Level-2 applications: According to O’Reilly these are digital applications which can operate offline but which are further enabled by going online. Examples include: Flickr, which benefits from its shared photo-database and from its community-generated tag database.

Level-1 applications: These are also available offline but which gain features online, but not perhaps to the same extent as Level 2. In a sense, the majority of their features are used in an offline capacity – much like standard software applications. Examples include: Writely (gaining group-editing capability online) and iTunes (because of its music-store portion). Level-0 applications would work as well offline. O'Reilly gave the examples of MapQuest, Yahoo! Local, and Google Maps. Mapping applications using contributions from users to advantage can rank as level 2.

Finally, there are the non-web applications like email, instant-messaging clients and the telephone.

The most notable of the Web 2.0 sites are arguably the Social Networking sites which are getting much of the press attention and remarkable valuations at the moment. The star in the firmament, thanks to Rupert Murdoch’s purchase of it for $580 million, is which boasts over 100 million subscribers – and in some ways rivals many Murdoch’s own Fox Network in terms of eyeballs. But there are other contenders in the shape of and These sites provide users with simple tools to create blogs, upload pictures, audio and video and connect with one another in away that was never possible before on the web. What has media moguls eyeing them is the potential for advertising sales. Already, has made back its asking price and some by selling the advertising rights to for $900 million to Google.

Google itself has developed a number of Web 2.0 applications out of its labs – with Google Earth and Google Sketch Up, for example. Both applications would rank ask Level 0 by O’Reilly’s grading – in that they also work as offline applications- but that doesn’t mean that their online capabilities are not of immense interest. Google Sketch Up is a simple tool for creating 3D shapes – such as buildings or objects. The toolset allows a limited amount of textures and colouring giving the user a basic 3D Studio Max type application. Helpfully, you can also import other 3D files from 3D Studio Max, CAD or other 3-D packages. Thus, if you import your house plans, you can also import a range of products from Ikea and see how they look in your virtual home. When you are happy, you then can upload it to Google Earth and let people see your virtual home in geographic context. So you can see how a Web 2.0 application may well start a virtual community.

Well, in fact, that has already happened with Second Life is a 3-D virtual world entirely built and owned by its residents. Since opening to the public in 2003, it has grown explosively and today is inhabited by 342,944 people from around the globe. From the moment you enter the World you'll discover a vast digital continent, teeming with people looking to talk and entertainment of every variety.

Once you've explored a bit, you may even find a perfect parcel of land to build your house or business (import it from Google Sketch Up, if you want!). You'll also be surrounded by the Creations of your fellow residents. Because residents retain the rights to their digital creations, they can buy, sell and trade with other residents.

The Marketplace currently supports millions of US dollars in monthly transactions. This commerce is handled with the in-world currency, the Linden dollar, which can be converted to US dollars at several thriving online currency exchanges.

For many veterans of the Dot Com bubble of the late nineties, there is an element of déjà vu about all of this. Web Portals, social networks, distributed applications and virtual reality were among the many business plans scribbled on the back of napkins in Starbucks. But the difference this time around is simple: broadband. Now the bandwidth is there for always on, rich media content and that’s what makes Web 2.0 so exciting.

Here are a few more sites to whet your appetite: Odeo allows users to record and share audio using simple, browser-based tools. A browser with Flash installed, an internet connection and a microphone are all you need to start podcasting. An aggregation tool that lets each user create a personalized page that pulls news feeds and data from web services into modular boxes. The boxes update automatically, and their display options are totally customizable.

posted by Neil Leyden @ 6:51 p.m.


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