Earlier this week the director of the BBC’s new media division spent a happy few days in Las Vegas.
As far as we know Ashley Highfield wasn’t trying to increase his budget for the soon to be launched myBBCplayer with some judicious bets at the roulette tables.He was there with representatives from Amazon, eBay and Myspace for Mix06, Microsoft’s massive new media conference.
And he even got to share a stage with company founder Bill Gates to announce that the BBC was looking closely at the new generation of internet technologies and thinking of how to redesign its services to work with them.
The BBC is not alone in embracing Web 2.0, as this mixed bag of tools, services, design guidelines and programming languages is generally known.
Only last week Google splashed out on Writely, a web-based word processor that requires no downloads or installation and just runs in a browser window. Similar services include Ajaxwrite, which can read and write Microsoft Word documents, and Zoho Writer.
They are just the tip of an iceberg which has been attracting interest from the bloggers, the technical community and – most crucially – investors who finally feel sufficiently recovered from the traumas of 1999 to get back into the technology marketplace.
I’ve been sceptical about Web 2.0, since although there are a lot of cool toys out there the idea that you can solve the problems of distributed computing by rewriting web pages on the fly seems rather optimistic, to say the least.
But I’m starting to come round, if only because the explosion of creativity on the part of those developing new services and applications is so impressive.
Part of the problem is of course trying to define the term Web 2.0. Tim O’Reilly, the publisher and net advocate, coined it but he seems content to let it remain vague enough to encompass almost any web-based service that doesn’t rely on static HTML pages.
Michael Arrington, author of the entertainingly boosterish Web 2.0 blog TechCrunch, sees it as the ‘inevitable evolution of the web from a read-mostly medium to a read-write, or two-way medium’.
For him the key thing about technologies like Ajax and Ruby on Rails, both widely used to build Web 2.0 services, is that they let developers create dynamic, interactive content so that ‘text is no longer necessarily embedded in a web page, it can be syndicated through RSS’.
This separation of data from its presentation is something rather familiar to old-style database systems developers, who have always tried to ensure that the underlying database is properly insulated from any application so that it can be changed without having to rewrite large chunks of code.
A purist would object that the use of program code in Web pages to rewrite HTML on the fly is not the way to achieve this sort of separation, and all we’re really doing is layering complexity on a broken system in order to make it slightly less ugly.
But that is to ignore the reality of today’s internet, where hundreds of millions of people have a browser installed on their computer and want tools that will work with it.
Even if we ignore the architectural issues, there are questions that go beyond the fear that Web 2.0 is rapidly becoming just another marketing term with no real significance, or that the venture capitalists are so eager to fund even the flakiest startup that we will end up with The Economist terms ‘Bubble 2.0’.
For example, I’m not writing this using Ajaxwrite or Writely or any of the other web-based tools for the simple reason that I’m currently offline and so don’t have access to all that Ajax magic.
Since I’m running a Mac I could install all of the necessary web-based components on my local machine, of course. Then I wouldn’t need to worry about being online or about where my sensitive data was being cached.
But if I’m going to do that I might as well go all the way and install a word processor.
I also have to worry about exactly where my data is and who is looking after it. My good friend Simon is happy to keep his online life on other people’s servers, using services like Campfire for online discussions and Jotspot Live for note taking, but I am uneasy about trusting so much of my personal information to these companies.
Yet in the Web 2.0 world we will be expected to place more and more trust in the companies offering these web-based services, and I’m not sure we’re ready for this.
Whatever concerns we may have it is undeniable that the new generation of applications are cool and interesting, and they offer far more functionality than the old websites I spent my youth building. Underneath the exaggerated claims and hyped-up business plans there really is something going on here, and it should be taken seriously.
Maybe Web 2.0 is a transitional phase, and once get used to interacting with online tools in a more natural way and dispense with static web we will move to a world of true distributed computing.
Perhaps we should see it as the online equivalent of Marx’s ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’, the stage which comes after the overthrow of capitalism and is a necessary if painful step on the way to true socialism.
Sadly, history tells us that the dictators tend to like their power and find ways to ensure that socialism is never really attempted, so we’ll need to make sure that the successful Web 2.0 companies don’t just sit on progress because it doesn’t serve their business plans, like so many other computing companies have done in the past and continue to do today.
If Web 2.0 is the first stage in a revolution, we need to make sure it’s a permanent revolution.
Ashley Highfield on the BBC’s future: http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/technology/4828336.stm
Techcrunch, blogging web 2.0: http://www.techcrunch.com/