There was one obvious conclusion to draw from this experience, and it’s the opposite of the Dodgeball revelation. A lot of these sites and services are terrific for people of any vintage, and they can handle more of one’s daily chores than I would ever have imagined. Their “social” aspect is valuable in small but real ways. After my wife and I made each other authorized viewers of our respective Google calendars, we didn’t have to bicker about whether we had already made dinner plans for three weeks from Tuesday.
Web 2.0’s most important step forward seems to be the widespread adoption of Ajax – a combination of XML and other technologies that can make a plain old Web page nearly as responsive to commands as a “real” application like Excel or Outlook. The beta version of Yahoo’s new mail utility is one illustration: it can move, delete, and offer previews of incoming messages just about as fast as my normal Outlook can. Writely is even more impressive. In all the usual tools and tricks of word processing – editing, deleting, changing formats, cutting and pasting – Writely’s speed, over a broadband connection, is hard to distinguish from a desktop version of Word’s; but unlike Word, Writely is truly of the Web. I could (had I wished) have shared documents and collaborated with fellow writers or edited my documents from any location.
Here is what you would know if you’d spent the spring the way I did:
The new Web is analog, not digital. By which I mean it is not the result of a single, big, discrete innovation. Rather, it represents a continuum of new ideas, from the slightly evolutionary to the dramatically different.
Consider the true darlings of Web 2.0, and the wide variation in the technologies and insights crucial to their success. Google Earth is entrancing because it combines extremely detailed worldwide imagery, technology that lets users “fly” from place to place, and a programming interface that lets users attach new data to images that they can share with other users. Google itself succeeded technically because of its PageRank algorithm for evaluating Web pages, but what made it so financially powerful were the AdSense and AdWords advertising networks. Skype emerged because its inventors were looking for a (legal) way to use the peer-to-peer technology that had gotten them into trouble as the basis for Kazaa, a file-sharing network. EBay understood the importance of “trust” rankings to allow sellers to buy from unknown vendors, but what made it king was the old-fashioned logic of monopoly, which means that once a certain auction site becomes popular, both buyers and sellers have an incentive to use only that site. Flickr, with its easy-upload systems and vast storage space, managed to keep pace with seven-megapixel digital photos and the proliferation of camera phones. MySpace and Facebook applied social-networking technology to the eternal interests of young people on the prowl.
These Web 2.0 companies are similar in that they’re all doing good business now; but they’re doing it for a wide variety of reasons and with wildly different histories and technical strengths. Their success is a welcome change from the Web 1.0 connotations of bubble, crash, and dashed hopes. But they don’t constitute as distinct a movement.
We don’t actually live in an online world. If, like me, you are constantly irradiated by Wi-Fi signals and have your BlackBerry always within reach, even at night, you may have begun to suspect that you are, if anything, connected all too much of the time. But that suspicion evaporates the moment you actually need information that resides somewhere, far away, on a server.