Why Web 2.0 Matters

The advent of several new Web technologies and techniques, loosely referred to as “Web 2.0”, has revolutionised the delivery of information services to users via fixed and mobile Web browsers and has the potential to replace many traditional desktop applications and techniques.

Web 2.0 has, in little over a year, transformed the way in which users interact with information via the Web in dramatic and positive ways. Many of the services that have been developed so far could either have direct application in the service of Parliament or guide the development of future services. Reliance on traditional desktop and server applications needs to be reconsidered in the light of these new developments, which continue to evolve at a remarkable pace.

If any organisation is to have a modern, efficient information system for staff and public, which is able to keep pace with rapid change and compare favourably with the best offerings on the Web, the advent of Web 2.0 cannot be ignored. Although it is not a panacea, Web 2.0 can and should have a place in the information strategy.

Introduction

In the past 18 months the advent of several new Web technologies and techniques, loosely referred to as “Web 2.0”, has revolutionised the delivery of information services to users via Web browsers and has the potential to replace many traditional desktop applications and techniques. The even more recent advent of Web 2.0 on mobile platforms is accelerating development and innovation further.

Instead of large complex proprietary applications and software suites installed on each PC, which can be hard to configure and maintain, the new lightweight portable Web-based services require only a Web browser with little or no local configuration and generally run equally well on Windows, Mac, Linux and (with some restrictions) on mobile platforms such as PDAs and high-end mobile phones. Companies wanting to serve many millions of users need to be able to engage the widest possible audience.

Innovative new companies based on such Web-based services, like Flickr, MySpace, and YouTube, have proliferated, gathering millions of users, and hundreds of millions of Dollars of value, in a matter of months. These sites, like so many others of the Web 2.0 generation, depend almost entirely on user-contributed content for their success. Encouraging users to contribute regularly requires appealing, easy to use interfaces.

Other sites, like Facebook, Bebo and Orkut, have gathered large numbers of users by creating interactive online communities. Here, users trade the effort expended in entering personal information in return for higher quality matching with potential friends, activity partners and ‘dates’. Users become ‘co-developers’ of the sites.

It is important to note that none of these sites provides training or a help desk. How to use the site must be self-evident or intuitive; if not, the site will simply be a commercial failure. The competition for “eye-balls”, i.e. users, has become intense and that competition is reflected in the effort expended in creating high-quality interface design and rich functionality. Even the well-established Internet players, like Yahoo and Google, have had to respond to these new developments and update their traditional offerings.

The rush to gather users to impress advertisers and potential buyers alike has led to other companies, like Writely and Zimbra, with web-based alternatives to many of the traditional desktop applications, such as word processing, spreadsheets, databases, project management and calendaring. Email has, of course, long been available as a Web-based service, highly prized by people on the move.

In short, the innovation initiative is passing from the traditional creators of large software applications with long release cycles to the provision of Web-based services which can evolve rapidly because they do not have to rely on local client software updates for functionality or revenue stream.

Web 2.0 is changing both the Web and software business models very fast and many of the large traditional software companies are scrambling to catch up with the new leading edge.

What is “Web 2.0”

Whilst opinion as to what exactly constitutes “Web 2.0” differs in some details, the following general principles are fundamental:

  • The emphasis has shifted from software programs (whether locally installed or on network servers) to Web-based service provision – the concept of ‘software as a service’, instead of as a boxed product.
  • The software providing these services is constantly evolving – some sites release new versions daily or even hourly – and it is never ‘signed-off’ and finished in the traditional ‘product’ sense; leading to the concept of the ‘permanent beta’.
  • New Web technologies, such as AJAX (Advanced JavaScript and XHTML), have dramatically improved the interactivity and responsiveness of the user-experience, making possible intuitive interaction with complex service offerings yet without the need for traditional user support (training, manuals, etc). Techniques that were traditionally the preserve of desktop applications, such as drag and drop or dynamic interaction, can now be used in Web browsers.
  • New developments in browser rendering technology, such as the new version of CSS (Cascading Style Sheets), have considerably enhanced the visual appearance and ergonomics of web-based applications.
  • The easier, better user interface brought about by these technologies has made possible the extraordinary success of Web sites fuelled by user-generated content. Sites have to be attractive and easy to use if they are to encourage the regular user participation on which they depend. Moreover, the competition between sites for new features means each new enhancement must be easily found and easy to use.

Why does Web 2.0 matter?

The consequences of the arrival of the Web 2.0 generation of services are:

  • Web 2.0 makes possible things that previously either could not be done in the Web environment or were so difficult to do or use as to be impractical. In other words, it opens up a whole new area of possibilities that were previously the sole preserve of desktop applications and which can be accessed from multiple locations using just a Web browser.
  • Web 2.0 dramatically ‘raises the bar’ in terms of appearance and functionality, not just for the dot-com companies offering competing web-based services but for all organisations with Web sites. Sites without the new technologies and techniques are rapidly starting to look and feel old-fashioned or even obsolete. As a result, the cost of developing Web sites that are appealing and engaging – and keeping them so – is rising significantly. Compelling content was always a requirement for competing Web sites seeking to attract and retain users. Compelling interaction has become the new battleground.
  • Web-based services are developing far more rapidly than desktop-based applications because they provide a much faster and easier route to market than traditional software distribution models; no application updates on the client devices are required (except for occasional browser updates and security fixes, which can be automated) and new versions can be deployed virtually instantly.
  • Combining Web 2.0 with mobile devices will accelerate the development of location based services, mobile search and digital convergence. The device itself can become part of the search, by providing location information.
  • Web 2.0 has coincided with the appearance of “mashups”, the dynamic integration of data from multiple sources into a unified presentation. The use of the Google maps service is a good example - someone in the USA took the published crime figures for city districts and did a mashup with the Google service to produce a map showing crime density. (Technically, mashups are not strictly Web 2.0 but tend to get lumped into it because they emerged at about the same time.)
  • In system design terms, the emphasis shifts from applications and operating systems to information and the users’ interactions with it. This, in fact, should always have been at the heart of good system architecture and design.

Conclusions

Web 2.0 has, in little over a year, transformed the way in which users interact with information via the Web in dramatic and positive ways. Many of the services that have been developed so far could either have direct application in the service of organisations or guide the development of services. Reliance on traditional applications needs to be reconsidered in the light of these developments, which continue to evolve at a remarkable pace.

Many of these new Web 2.0 developments could be employed to create a Web based system providing access to the main corporate ICT services and provide facilities equivalent to those traditionally provided by local desktop applications, such as word processing. In time, techniques will probably emerge that would allow all services to be provided (or, at least, accessed) in this way.

If any organisation is to have a modern, efficient information system for staff and public, which is able to keep pace with rapid change and compare favourably with the best offerings on the Web, the advent of Web 2.0 cannot be ignored. Although it is not a panacea, Web 2.0 can and should have a place in the information strategy.

(written November 2006)

Footnotes: 

This article was derived from the Written Evidence I submitted to the House of Commons Administration Select Committee enquiry into the provision of ICT services for Members.