ABC: An Introduction to Web 2.0


It’s always difficult to get past technology buzzwords. Even when the subject holds real merit, the hype machines quickly throw the subject out of whack, making it difficult to distinguish between the fad and the original promise. Public relations professionals, anxious to link their new product to a “hot new technology,” appropriate the term even when it doesn’t actually apply. Industry articles claim that the new buzzword-enabled technology will forever change the face of computing. You begin to expect to hear that a woman has named her baby after it, and that, at the end of the cycle, the technology will be blamed for global warming.This phenomenon certainly applies to the family of technologies and services that are bundled together under the Web 2.0 umbrella. In this article, we’ll summarize the key points to illuminate what Web 2.0 is—and what it isn’t—so that you can put it to use in your business.

Why is Web 2.0 such a big deal?

Let’s start with the high-level view. Many consider Web 2.0 to be a major shift in computing because in the new paradigm, the Internet itself becomes the computing platform. That is, a “true” Web 2.0 application—whatever that is—would be indistinguishable from a desktop application. Like a desktop program, the ultimate Web 2.0 application would have immediate feedback and would update information without a deliberate refresh. In this context, you’ll sometimes see these applications called rich Internet applications (RIAs).

But Web 2.0 isn’t meant to be a one-to-one replacement for the applications you run on your desktop. The new breed of application, which runs primarily on Internet servers and company intranets, is generally understood to be dynamic (that is, content updates automatically) and collaborative (drawing information from multiple sources and from user contribution), embraces the long tail (that is, appeals to smaller niches in the community and not just the largest audience)—and still remains simple and intuitive.

It can be helpful to draw a line between the software development technologies generally associated with Web 2.0, and the functionality that those technologies let programmers achieve. The technologies—we’ll get to those in a moment—are simply tools that enable programmers to put up a website that, one hopes, improves the user experience. If programmers can accomplish the same goals using an “old” technology or, heck, using chicken wire and an old coat hanger, the site is no less a “Web 2.0” site.

I won’t inundate you with references to additional reading (since you came here to get the broad overview), but it’s probably important to at least glance at the seminal definition of Web 2.0, at least in the eyes of one of the people who crafted its name, and called Web 2.0 “the new conventional wisdom.” In What Is Web 2.0, Tim O’Reilly, founder and CEO of O’Reilly Media, clarifies its principles and practices. He also said recently, “Web 2.0 is ultimately a tipping point, not a starting point. And it’s about business models and social adoption rates, as much as it is about technology.”

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