Web 2.0 Definition and Solutions

Web 2.0 topics covering definition, objectives, systems and solutions.

By Esther Schindler
Mon, April 02, 2007

CIO

Why is Web 2.0 such a big deal?
What are the Web 2.0 technologies?
What do those technologies let you do?
How does Web 2.0 change the user experience?
How can Web 2.0 benefit my business?
What's the borderline between the hype and the promise?

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."

What are the Web 2.0 technologies?

To many managers, the biggest surprise is that Web 2.0 isn't based on a just-invented new technology. Rather, it's based on a clever repackaging of older technologies, tied to an "Aha!" of attitude.

That "Aha!" was first uttered by Jesse James Garrett in February 2005, and immortalized online in his essay, Ajax: A New Approach to Web Applications. In it, he explained the Ajax collection of Web development techniques—asynchronous JavaScript and XML—as a way to create interactive Web applications.

You're probably moderately familiar with each of these components, at least well enough to nod along when your development staff mentions the terms. (If not, it's time for a quick refresher course, which we won't endeavor to supply here.) CSS and HTML (or XHTML) are used to control the presentation of data on the webpage.

The client-side scripting language, usually JavaScript or JScript, dynamically displays and interacts with the information presented. The golden key is the JavaScript XMLHttpRequest object, which gives developers the ability to make a page exchange data asynchronously with the Web server. (Some Ajax frameworks use an IFrame object instead of XMLHttpRequest, but don't let that distract you; the intent is the same.) As a manager, you don't have to know about the grand inner workings of XMLHttpRequest; the important bit to understand is that it lets a webpage keep data in sync with information stored on a company server, using a business partner's Web service, or from any public online entity that makes the information available.

Data is generally stored and exchanged using XML, often in conjunction with Web services. Other data interchange formats will work as long as they support some form of server-side scripting.

Developers can work with Ajax or other Web development tools in a brute-force manner. Or they can use an ever-expanding number of tools and frameworks that let them add Web 2.0 features to their existing development environment. It's probable that the development tools your company uses are already supported.

Another element in the Web 2.0 development scheme is the use of open application program interfaces (APIs). The underlying code may not be open source in any true definition of that term, but APIs provide access to a site's underlying data and system dynamics. That's what makes it feasible for a developer to create, say, a unique view of book sales data; she can leverage Amazon Web Services via the associated API.

If those technologies are all a bit new to you, and you come from an older era of data processing, you may be more comfortable with an alternate visualization. Think of Web 2.0 in ancient UNIX terms: pipes and redirects connecting the output of lots of smaller tools and processes—the Web as monster collection of shell scripts, if you will.

That sounds a bit like a techniques lecture given to programmers. If you're not personally involved with software development, your attention may be beginning to fray. Never fear: That's all the programmer-speak we're going to use. Because Web 2.0 isn't truly defined by the use of Ajax. What matters is what it lets you achieve.

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