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The "Perfect Storm" of Web 2.0 Disruption

"The winds of change in the Web world have reached hurricane force right now..."

The winds of change in the Web world have reached hurricane force right now, and nowhere are they blowing more fiercely than around that epicenter of weather activity that's been labeled "Web 2.0." There, a perfect storm is brewing.

I choose the term "perfect storm" advisedly since no other phrase that I am aware of encapsulates as succinctly the crucial insight that it's a confluence of simultaneous yet quite disparate events and changes that, in my view, is driving the current turmoil. Few technology - and fewer still business - commentators seems to have lifted up their heads for long enough recently to realize that the reason they need to take "Web 2.0" very seriously indeed is that its marketeering connotations belie the reality that we are experiencing the simultaneous occurrence of events which, taken individually, would be far less powerful than the result of their chance combination. Together, however, they have developed an awe-inspiring power.

Such occurrences are, by their very nature, rare. But that doesn't mean they aren't real and that they don't happen. Ask anyone in the 1,000-mile radius of the epicenter of the Asian tsumani of 2004.

Paul Graham, well-known essayist and hardly a superficial "hypester," did an interview with TechCruch recently in which he said as follows:

"To me “Web 2.0″ translates to “Web.” And Web technologies don’t appeal only to a small niche. Web-based email services have hundreds of millions of users. The network (in the broader sense of the Internet plus the phone networks) pervades everything now.

We’re pretty open about what we think makes a technology stick. We print it on T-Shirts: 'Make something people want.' If you had to reduce the recipe for a successful startup to four words, those would probably be the four."

Graham has also written, in a November 2005 essay:
"Does 'Web 2.0' mean anything more than the name of a conference yet? I don't like to admit it, but it's starting to. When people say 'Web 2.0' now, I have some idea what they mean. And the fact that I both despise the phrase and understand it is the surest proof that it has started to mean something."
Tim Berners-Lee on the other hand, has been dismissing Web 2.0 as "a piece of jargon" and pointing out - most recently in a podcast he did with IBM's developerWorks - that Web 2.0 relies on Web 1.0 technologies such as the DOM, HTML, http, SVG, web standards, and JavaScript. Which, with the deepest respect for one of the great geniuses of the late 20th century, suggests that TBL is not wholly up to speed yet with the 21st: to say that "Web 2.0" is meaningless because it relies on pre-existing technologies is surely a little like saying that "supersonic flight" is meaningless because the Wright Brothers got there first.

Berners-Lee argues that "Web 1.0" was already totally about connecting people. "It was an interactive space," he notes. "The idea of the Web as interaction between people is really what the Web is. That was what it was designed to be - as a collaborative space where people can intreract."

Now one doesn't take issue lightly with the Father of the World Wide Web, but my concern is that, in his perhaps understandable desire to do whatever he can to stop what he possibly perceives as a New Bubble, Berners-Lee is inadvertently falling into the (for him, of all people) surprising role of what Virginia Postrel calls a "stasist" - as in one who favors the static over the dynamic.

Because the real essence of "Web 2.0" - pace Berners-Lee - is not its technology so much as its opportunism, its chaos, and its exhuberance.

Dave Winer - with whom, like TBL, one takes issue somewhat reluctantly - seems to me to make the same mistake, i,e, that of dismissing "Web 2.0" on technological grounds thus missing the point that only one of the elements of "Web 2.0" is technology. Here is what Winer wrote on September 1:
"One sure sign of a bubble is the meta-ness of the excitement. How far removed from actual user experience is the euphoria? Is there any technology involved?"

Robert Scoble take the same stance as Winer, blogging just yesterday:
"The other day I was talking with a developer...and he told me about all the froth he was seeing in the Web 2.0 space. He was wondering where the people were who were paying attention to business. Profits. Customers. He pointed to a lot of the events he’s been attending lately and said 'they are frothy.'"
I wonder whether what Scoble's unnamed developer friend really meant was not so much "frothy" as "fuzzy" or "blurry." In which case he has hit the nail on the head, though perhaps not in the way that Scoble realized.

"Web 2.0" is an example of what the historian Daniel Boorstin would have called "the Fertile Verge" - "a place of encounter between something and something else." Boorstin (and here I am wholly indebted to Virginia Postrel) pinpointed such "verges" as being nothing short of the secret to American creativity.

Postrel sums up what Boorstin was saying as follows:
"A verge is not a sharp border but a frontier region: where the forest meets the prairie or the mountains meet the flatlands, where ecosystems or ideas mingle. Verges between land and sea, between civilization and wilderness, between black and white, between immigrants and natives...between state and national governments, between city and countryside - all mark the American experience."
The creativity of America, Boortsin argued - the hope of the nation - lies "in its verges, in its new mixtures and new confusions."

My point is that there is no boundary between "Web 1.0" and "Web 2.0" - just a blurry verge. And the richness of the verge lies in the cross-fertilization and new combinations they encourage.

Web 2.0 is a Boom Town, and - as Postrel points out - "Boom towns break down barriers; they mix together talent from everywhere; they challenge complacency and overturn assumptions. They are sometimes ugly and almost always stressful, but they foster invention, progress, and learning. And they let people chase their dreams."

So my view is that, unlike Asia, the tsunami of change heralded by the current storm in Web development and online business models, coming as it does together with a simultaneous revolution in the way that users are choosing to use the Web, is an unprecedented opportunity for us all. Users, content providers, Web developers, businesses of every stripe.

"Web 2.0" lends itself to totally new types of applications, and its immediacy and openness can be a powerful differentiator in existing business interactions. The trick is to get involved right now, armed with an application architecture that will carry you forward safely and profitably, wherever the "Web 2.0" whirlwind may take you.

More Stories By Jeremy Geelan

Jeremy Geelan is Chairman & CEO of the 21st Century Internet Group, Inc. and an Executive Academy Member of the International Academy of Digital Arts & Sciences. Formerly he was President & COO at Cloud Expo, Inc. and Conference Chair of the worldwide Cloud Expo series. He appears regularly at conferences and trade shows, speaking to technology audiences across six continents. You can follow him on twitter: @jg21.

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Most Recent Comments
Alan Barlow 10/25/06 03:46:26 PM EDT

Wait till you experience Web 3.0! A holographic "virtual desktop" projected from your mobile phone into mid-air connected to a central server allowing you to access all your files anywhere/anytime...your phone becomes your mouse and an advanced voice-to-text application allowing you to speak what you want typed...holographic envelopes flying in/out simulating messages arriving and being sent...plus cats and dogs living together and discussing hairballs over dinner ;-)

Bernard Moon 09/07/06 05:54:41 AM EDT

Our team, at GoingOn Networks, deals with this everyday since we are by definition an "Enterprise 2.0" platform and actively selling to the market.

After we did our "soft beta" launch several weeks ago, we started pounding the pavement to sell our "private label MySpace" to companies and organizations. Through these discussions, we learned an incredible amount in terms of what companies want, expect, and don't know about. And we continue to learn.

Nick Fera 09/07/06 05:50:13 AM EDT

Successful software firms will continue to concentrate on these core items in building enterprise software. The self-anointed luminaries will make grand statements about the next New Thing, come up with a fancy label and wax prophetically about how they help define a new category of software and service.

The rest of us will focus on value.

Mike Stephens 09/07/06 05:48:41 AM EDT

Saugatuck Technology used the term "SaaS 2.0" to describe a new phase for software-as-a-service where there will be less focus on cutting costs and more on process improvement.

UHF 09/07/06 02:51:22 AM EDT

Web 2.0 is just jargon. The 2.0 is people's hope's that they can make a million this time around having missed it the first time. There's nothing physically new or different, it's the same internet and the same audience.

Mark Scrimshire 09/05/06 12:18:08 PM EDT

A very insightful commentary.

I believe the critical aspect with Web 2.0 as opposed to Web 1.0 is simply accessability.

Resourceful developers have taken existing technologies (witness AJAX) and put them together in new ways that allow non-technical users to contribute their knowledge to the web without needing to understand the underlying technologies.

web2.wsj2.com 09/04/06 08:11:51 PM EDT

Trackback Added: All We Got Was Web 1.0, When Tim Berners-Lee Actually Gave Us We; The blogosphere flew into its usual uproar a few days ago when the inventor of the World Wide Web himself, the venerated Tim Berners-Lee, was recently recorded in a podcast calling Web 2.0 nothing more than a piece of jargon. There is little lo

Aplix7 09/03/06 09:38:22 AM EDT

I kind of feel like Microsoft is either dead, or its limbs are dying while its head remains talking. Meanwhile the little companies are nibbling at the carcass of what used to be its market share. But I could be wrong about that. After all, I am using Windows now. But then again, I am using little of Windows except the core OS: I use Firefox, Thunderbird, and Vim. The parts of Windows that I use could be handled by many other OSes.

Hear, hear 09/03/06 09:34:07 AM EDT

If I were Microsoft, I'd be worried about the perfect storm of Web 2.0 rivals to Microsoft Office: Thinkfree, Zoho Writer, Writeboard, Google Writely, Rallypoint and JotSpot Live as Microsoft Word competitors, JotSpot Tracker, Numsum, iRows, Zoho Street as Microsoft Excel alternatives, S5, Zoho Show as PowerPoint contenders, ThinkFree, gOffice and Zoho Virtual Office as suite offerings.

VC guy 09/03/06 09:23:11 AM EDT

I enjoyed the interview that Paul Graham did with TechCrunch.

I agree with most of what Paul says, in particular what he says about web 2.0 and developing products and services

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