Column: Web 2.0 or hype 2.0?

Here’s a column I posted at on the hype over “Web 2.0”:

“In the beginning, the Web was made up of low-tech websites with grainy images, and interactivity consisted of an “e-mail me” icon that looked like a spinning envelope. Then came Flash, Javascript and Java, which allowed users to interact more with the content on a site, by clicking buttons or watching animations. Gradually, those developments blurred the line between using a service on a website and using an application on a desktop. Now, the industry is buzzing about something that has been dubbed “Web 2.0″ — a new level of interactivity that allows websites to provide desktop-like functionality with nothing but a browser and a high-speed Internet connection.

This idea was the backdrop for the recent news that Google and Sun Microsystems had decided to work together on… well, something. If Web 2.0 fans were hoping for a blockbuster announcement that would add some fireworks to the concept — and it’s clear that they were, given the amount of speculation that preceded the Google-Sun press conference — what they got was more of a “damp squib,” as someone put it. Even though the actual news was underwhelming, however (Sun agreed to bundle Google’s toolbar with its Java engine), the two hinted that there would be more, and some observers see Google eventually offering desktop-style applications in addition to its web-based email and satellite photo services.

In that sense, Web 2.0 is seen by some as fulfilling the initial promise of Netscape Communications’ “browser as platform” strategy, a plan that was cut short by a combination of Microsoft’s market dominance and Netscape’s own failed business model. Web 2.0 is also seen as a step on the road toward the “network is the computer” model Sun Microsystems and others have been pushing for the past decade or so. But is the fact that so much attention is being paid to small web-based startups — not to mention the money that is being paid by Yahoo, AOL, Google and others to acquire them — a sign that Web 2.0 is real, or a sign of Internet hype 2.0?

The first hallmark of a new tech movement has already been fulfilled: a conference. Tech publishing firm O’Reilly Media held the second annual Web 2.0 conference this month, populated by dozens of start-ups, as well as representatives from Microsoft, Yahoo, America Online and Google, not to mention dozens of “bloggers.” Along with Google’s expected announcement, much of the talk was about some of the web-based companies that have been acquired recently, such as the Weblogs Inc. network founded by Jason Calacanis — former editor of Silicon Alley Reporter magazine. The company is a network of blogs, run by hired writer/editors who regularly post on a variety of topics, including gadgets (Engadget), cars (Autoblog), movies (Cinematical) and luxury items (Luxist). Mr. Calacanis sold the company to AOL for $35-million.

Yahoo bought Flickr, the Vancouver-based photo-sharing network, for a similar sum earlier this year. Many Web observers see Flickr as being a quintessential Web 2.0 company, for a number of reasons. One is that its services (photo sharing) are provided exclusively over the Internet; another is that Flickr — like other Web 2.0 services such as, the bookmark-sharing network — relies heavily on the use of “tags” or labels that allow users to organize the site themselves rather than having it imposed on them; and Flickr allows others to use its application programming interface, or API.

One final thing that makes it a Web 2.0 company is that Flickr uses a number of technologies (including Javascript, cascading stylesheets, the “document object model” and XML) that are known collectively as Ajax, and let users interact with and change a website. Websites that use Ajax, such as Google Maps or a dynamic home-page service called Netvibes, let anyone who has logged in rearrange the items on a page simply by dragging windows and icons around. The same type of technology can allow users to do many of the things they associate with a desktop, including word processing.

Already, there are services such as that offer free document creation and editing, and others that allow users to interactively edit documents together. Meebo is a browser-based instant messaging application that interfaces with MSN, Yahoo and AIM, and Zimbra offers email and a calendar function. And the big players are rushing to join the party too: Microsoft is working on an upgrade for its Hotmail service (code-named Kahuna) that is all done using AJAX, and Yahoo is working on something similar, based on technology that was developed by Oddpost, which Yahoo bought last year.

So is Web 2.0 just hype? Some clearly feel the deals are coming a little too quickly. Kevin Burton, developer of the popular news feed-reader NewsMonster, said recently on his blog that “a lot of the recent news around Web 2.0 is starting to frighten me. There is just too much money flying around with too much hype and too little value.” Mr. Burton added that he “loves Web 2.0″ but “I just don’t want to see a repeat of the last .bomb where the market was hyped only to implode later.” Others, however, believe that underneath the deals and conferences, the idea of Web 2.0 is the beginning of something important. And if Microsoft loses its dominance as a result of such web-based services, they believe, so much the better.”

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