Web 2.0 - Real Or Hype?

Organizations looking for better tools to help them run their operations face a daunting challenge sifting through the chatter in the Web applications marketplace. Blogs are buzzing with predictions of how the nascent Web 2.0 revolution will change the way the Internet works, the IT media is dutifully covering the resurrection of ASP as SaaS (Software as a Service) and anointing SOA (Service Oriented Architecture) as the Second Coming of IT. Off on the edges of the radar screen, gangs of bright Silicon Valley engineers and entrepreneurs gather at the technology equivalent of potluck dinners to plot the future of the Online Universe and introduce fresh new buzzwords into the lexicon. Legions of VCs, looking to be the first investor in the next FaceBook or Google, are fueling the frenzy by lobbing $5-million care packages into startups. Meanwhile, mainstream media that has no idea what’s going on is eagerly churning out anecdotal stories as proof of emerging trends.

How is a small team or organization intent on making intelligent IT decisions to make sense of it all? What’s real, what’s hype, and what’s merely the evolution and refinement of tried and true ideas and processes? Perhaps more critical, how can a small business determine what companies have, or are likely to have, real products and services that represent a best-practice implementation of the New World Web paradigm?

A good starting point is pinning down this Web 2.0 beast. The top level Wikipedia definition of Web 2.0 is:

“A term often applied to a perceived ongoing transition of the World Wide Web from a collection of websites to a full-fledged computing platform serving web applications to end users. Ultimately Web 2.0 services are expected to replace desktop computing applications for many purposes.”

While relatively succinct, that one-paragraph description doesn’t translate the concept into something that’s obviously relevant to our target market: small teams. Web 2.0 Messiah Tim O’Reilly (whose company, O’Reilly Media, Inc., and MediaLive International simultaneously coined the term and created the conference to propagate the idea in 2004) fleshes out the idea in multiple dimensions on his website. It’s a chewy dissertation that effectively defines the new playing field for existing and emerging consumer-focused service companies, but offers little insight into what impact it all might have on small professional teams in a business context. After 15 pages, O’Reilly finally coughs up what he believes are the seven core competencies of Web 2.0 companies (we’ve tweaked Tim’s wording slightly for clarity):

  1. Offering services, not packaged software, that scale cost-effectively
  2. Providing control over hard-to-create data sources that get richer the more people use them
  3. Trusting users as co-developers
  4. Harnessing collective intelligence
  5. Leveraging what’s known as the Long Tail through customer self-service
  6. Creating software that is designed to work with multiple devices and networks
  7. Embracing the concept of lightweight (and inherently adaptive) user interfaces, development models, and business models

To developers who’ve been in the SaaS space since ASP went out of favor, #1, #6 and #7 hardly qualify as revelations. Much of the Web 2.0 cacophony - primarily focused on the consumer market - is around concepts #2 through #5. While these consumer experiments are interesting to watch, few of the current crop of companies that claim Web 2.0 status are focused on providing new thinking and tools that address the daily operational requirements of small teams and organizations. Which shouldn’t come as a surprise: application development and service delivery methodologies aside, Web 2.0 is mostly about a pretty simple idea - Social Networking - that scores of companies are spinning in different ways.

The acknowledged Social Networking poster kids - companies such as digg, del.icio.us and FaceBook - are attracting legions of consumer users/participants, but small businesses that were around during the birth and maturation of Web 1.0 will see the warning signs that the ideas need to bake a little longer in the mission non-critical consumer oven before they’re ready for business consumption. As with Web 1.0, lessons eventually will be learned that can be applied to solving real small business problems and improving processes. The good ideas and companies will survive and evolve, and the frivolous or ill-conceived startups will perish.

None of which is going to happen overnight. Developing Web software with fully fledged functionality that companies value enough to pay for is no simple task. Building the business-class infrastructure required to deliver the service levels that small organizations demand is even harder, and requires the skills of a team with deep Web 1.0 or enterprise hosting experience. It all comes down to basic needs for small businesses; they want their complex problems solved with software that’s simple to use, inexpensive and utterly reliable.

Not surprising, most of the business application of Web 2.0 principles is being led by developers who’ve culled what’s good and real from the marketing machine - such as AJAX, shared data models and scalable service architecture. Other Web 2.0 tenets that seem powerful and intuitively progressive when applied to consumers don’t necessarily translate well to a business environment.

For example, applying a collective intelligence model to a small business customer database is a little more complex than giving the “community” access to the data set. The reality is that an individual working inside an organization has three personas and three classes of information in his/her world: personal, business and social. A well designed contacts database model will allow the user to choose whether their contacts are private or shared, and respect the boundaries between personal, business and social interactions. Just managing the permissions and security issues of a shared contacts model that works inside and outside the firewall is a big challenge, much less creating a tool that allows selective harnessing of collective intelligence that can add to the value of that contact information. Taking it to the next level from a business intelligence perspective - making that contact data set interoperable with calendars and other tools in a user’s personal and professional worlds - would dramatically extend the value of the contact info, but goes beyond what’s possible at this minute in Internet Time given the lack of best practices, much less standards, around how Web services work together.

So, to rephrase and restate the question, how can an organization make intelligent SaaS purchase decisions in a confused and immature marketplace? Evaluating services and solutions against a set of specific criteria would filter out a lot of the noise:

  1. Does the Web product or service save money compared to a traditional desktop or on-premise server based solution?
  2. Does the Web product or service respect how teams actually work, or does it force new, inflexible processes on an organization?
  3. Is the service entirely Web-based and fully functional using a standard browser?
  4. Does the company providing the service have satisfied business customers you can contact?
  5. Does the service roll up a number of my business processes into one easy-to-use application?
  6. Does the service help me make more money, or make money more easily?