Hype And Hoopla 2.0

But despite all the bad associations the fever over Web 2.0 invites, it just might be the next big thing

Proving that technologists have no sense of humour, the second generation of web technologies has arrived, and it is called Web 2.0. Given the carnage of collapsed pet dot-coms back when Web 1.0 blew up, you might have thought technologists would try to disguise their intentions, maybe calling the next grab at the gold ring something friendlier, like “Bob” (whoops, that's been taken). But noooo. They are back with something they're advertising numerically as the latest, greatest version of the wave of venture capital and technological speciation that ended badly in 2000 with million-dollar, sock-puppet-sporting Super Bowl ads.

So what is Web 2.0? Where Web 1.0 was the web itself–technologies like HTML (the page markup language), plus browsers, plus interaction with the preceding–Web 2.0 often seems like Web 1.0+. It is all of the stuff that existed in Web 1.0–plus more!

For example, people talk about a set of technologies called Ajax as being core to Web 2.0. (If you really must know, Ajax is short for “asynchronous JavaScript and XML.”) The essence of Ajax (the technology, not the cleanser) is that it makes it easier to create zippy, interactive graphical applications that run in your browser. While that was possible before, it required technologies like Java, which was difficult to use. Ajax proponents argue that new Ajax-built online tools like Google Maps are harbingers of a fabulous new future, one where more and more online applications supplant off-line equivalents.

There are also those—the people at Sebastopol, Calif.-based publisher O'Reilly & Associates Inc. chief among them—who argue Web 2.0 has more to do with participation. Their take is that Web 2.0 is about harnessing people power online. As an example, they cite the Vancouver-founded (and now Yahoo-owned) photo-sharing company Flickr, with its embrace of having people share and collaborate to create communities of photographs. It is an organic phenomenon, one that grows up from user actions, not one imposed by corporate edict. O'Reilly calls it an architecture of participation, and they like the idea so much they have run two conferences on the subject. The most recent Web 2.0 conference, in early October in San Francisco, was a madhouse, with VCs, entrepreneurs, analysts and media sorts all lustfully racing around trying to kiss one another. Meanwhile, a wave of Web 2.0 speciation washed over the place with a host of new companies—Sphere!! Sxip! FeedBurner–of which few people had ever heard, and yet were all the buzz.

The temptation was to dismiss it as froth and faddishness. After all, you didn't need a long memory to remember similar times of mad entrepreneurial speciation, lustful VCs and overheated media. But that response would be knee-jerk and wrong. After all, some new online companies are growing very quickly, without burning heaps of cash. Look at MySpace, which grew to millions of users in two years, only to be bought earlier this year for hundreds of millions of dollars by Rupert Murdoch. Look at the growth in blogs, with thousands of sites being created every day. Look at the growth in RSS feeds, which are increasingly the way by which people consume information online. These are major technological changes that should not be cynically dismissed.

But there is more to it than technology, and perhaps the least understood aspect of Web 2.0 has to do with the economics of company creation. It is cheaper to build an online company than ever. The software is often free, teams of Indian programmers can be had for less than $15,000 a person, and marketing online via Google AdWords is a fraction of the cost of building out a worldwide distribution network. The result: you can start a company for $200,000 in seed money, where it would have required $2 million for Web 1.0.

Some are sniffing at this, saying the low barrier to entry is creating an entrepreneurship bubble, but that is elitist dreck. Bring 'em on, I say: more entrepreneurs experimenting with more technologies is like more monkeys with more typewriters. Even if it's only by chance, eventually we will get some truly world-changing stuff, and that is something we can all applaud.