The age of enlightenment

So way back in Dec/Jan, I was going to write a post about 2008 and my predictions. I started writing it and got pretty far along even. However, it was a topic that I think I bit off more than I could chew and thus I entered the long spiral of rat holes within rat holes and thus never finished the post. At this point, I am not sure if it will ever get posted. However one of the larger ideas I was going to post about in it was the state of the web today. Just so you know where I am coming from, if I were to talk about PCs (and for this argument only, including macs in that definition) in our society today, their roles are rather well settled. I have blogged about this in the past as well, but partially because of the ubiquity of them. They fit into our daily lives very easily because they solve problems which makes our lives more productive and encourages us (sometimes) to be more knowledgeable about many different things. You could argue about some fine points here and there regarding what else they do, or what they don't do, but in general computers have greatly affected how we learn, communicate, interact, have fun, etc.

The Internet has played a big part in that equation of course. The two largest components thus far being HTTP servers (aka "The web") and SMTP/POP/IMAP servers (aka "Email"). There are some candidates for what's next on that level such as IP phones (though that can't compete with cell phone technology....which is actually merging to be part of the Internet and thus may still be the next big IP technology), IP TV, Gaming, etc. However, there is now a whole level above the first one. For those that understand a stacked protocol model such as OSI or what is commonly known as the "IP" (Short for TCP-IP) protocol suite, this should make perfect sense. For everyone else, just think how adding a layer of bacon changes what was just lettuce, tomato, and bread to become a BLT. Now what I am about to talk about is the bacon in that analogy. You can roughly think of the lettuce, tomato, and bread as the web or a particular web site, the Internet, and your computer.

This leads into my first question, what is "Web 2.0?" Is it so specific (as is that Wikipedia article I linked to) that we have passed that time (just like we have past the era of the personal computer)? Are we not looking for "Web 3.0", "Web 3.5", or "Web 5.0"? Whatever you call it, the way that I see it, Web 2.0 was just the amalgamation of a lettuce and tomato sandwich. Sure you could argue better in whole than any of the parts alone, but also not necessarily THAT much greater than the sum. Everything today seems to fall into a few buckets. 1. Its just one step above the concept which is the web, and has found its niche market / position in that one spot. There are so many examples of this, its hard to list, but lets just go with Amazon, Ebay, Blogger, Gmail, etc. 2. There are sites out there which have grown above this (some more or less than others). Facebook is a really great example of this. Its more than just a web site. It does more than just provide a valuable service. It has changed how people interact with each other. Could it have done it by itself? Without Friendster, Orkut, Live Spaces, Myspace, LinkedIn, etc? Who knows, but somehow they found a way to be more ubiquitous to more users (of course all this is only my opinion). However, each of those sites are artificially limited in that the whole goal is to keep you coming back to their site. In this model its like putting a governor on innovation. No matter how many RESTful apis you make, developer frameworks you come up with, users you connect, in all instances the goal is the same: to get people to return to the site so that you can present them with a targeted ad. 3. Then there are the sites that both in technology and function go way beyond the first two buckets, but seem to be so niche (not a bad thing, just what their goals are) that they stay somewhat at a certain level depending on what peoples usage patterns are. Examples are Twitter, Pipes, Flickr, Popfly,, igoogle, etc.

I am sure that folks like Dare, Josh, Robert, and many others I am sure (I picked the people I knew :P) have their own opinions about this. There are a variety of arguments you could make regarding the placement of any of these (or more) products in the social history of online applications. However my argument is this: In almost all cases, the goal of the product (initially) was to either make money or solve a specific technical or social problem with an innovative (and even creative) technical solution. NOTHING is wrong with that. I like and appreciate many of those sites and many more. However, I would argue that for those two reasons, those sites (in my own classification at least will remain to be web 2.0 sites). Now I included sites like popfly, pipes, and facebook in there. Clearly, there are many who would argue (for a variety of technical and social reasons) that these stand above the others in terms of reaching the next stack in the "Web protocol suite" (see above reference). I don't disagree. But notice my argument. I believe that one or both of these classifications will artificially hold back a site from really becoming the next great thing.

Lets dig in. So if your goal is to make money (if you are a business of some kind where you receive revenue from the project, then you fall in this category) then there are currently only a few ways to monetize the Internet today. One is by selling goods (either at a discount, or rare/hard to find). Nothing fancy here. Amazon has REALLY innovated on this specific goal in many different ways (which I enjoy personally), but the goal of getting you to buy something is still the same. The other is via advertising (which in truth STILL goes back to the first, but in this case this category can stand on its own since the ads themselves are now as much of a commodity as the goods are), in which case the sole goal is to get you to visit as many ads as possible (through either volume by keeping you at the site longer/more often or through specific targeting by trying to know more about you). Neither of these are bad mind you since these allow many a site to spring up and provide innovative services which derive funding from these roots. In fact, in my own opinion, the second method of advertising is getting so large recently that it seems to drive itself. The more ads you sell/display the more money you make and the more money you make the more likely advertisers are likely to want to advertise with you. Interesting. Suddenly its not based on much tangible anymore but we suddenly have a business model based on who the more popular kids are. Ok. Well with either of these models, certain technical problems / solutions just are not interesting as they don't contribute to the root goal. (Many would now immediately bring up several examples that they think don't fit, however I would argue that in all the cases that I can think of, they are just technically related solutions designed to create more brand power for some other larger entity (or more users...which on the web is what brand power gets you). In these cases, the root is the same for the larger entity which is to make money. The other example is the startup hoping to get bought after creating an innovative technical solution. In this case as well there will be limitations to the solution since the goal would be to be purchased for money.)

The more that I think about it, making money seems to be the root (one way or another) of almost all the examples that I can think of. That said though, I still acknowledge that there is another classification which are technical solutions to problems using advanced web technologies. An example I can think of a the moment is Ruby (which is NOT new, but somehow only became popular lately). Another GREAT example (which I argue is probably the closest thing to getting us as a society to what I am thinking of) is RSS (or ATOM/RDF/JSON/whatever). It is ALSO not new, but seems to have found more of a place in recent web usage. However, it is ALSO held back since it is solely to solve a technical problem. (It does this well, but wont really launch itself into the next level on this alone.) Specifically I would say that the lack of a ubiquitous consumer storage of web feeds is the problem. Sure there are plenty of great syndication readers out there (I use, but so far they all suffer from a variety of limitations deriving back to the two I mention above. On a personal note, I think that the state of ad based revenue today (where the way you exist in the market is derived from how many ads you show (and are clicked on)) is somewhat of a cancer on innovation and engineering. When everything online has to in one way or another justify itself by how much others are willing to pay to keep your site up (really what ad revenue is), that's somewhat backwards as it focuses your engineering and innovative efforts on doing that faster, better, easier, etc. I worry inside that we are in the "Dark Ages" of the web and don't even know it. I SEE the technical capability out there, the skills, the tools, the scenarios for rising above it, but I can tell you that I certainly don't know the solution, nor have I seen one yet. I eagerly await "Web Enlightenment."

Some basic questions I had (but don't know the answers to) around this are: What happened to REAL engineering and innovation for the sake of advancement as a species rather than for the sake of some business entity? Why does it seem that all our engineering problems & solutions today are all specifically technically focused? (An example being that I currently need to know C#, XML, databases, web development, and RSS to get some basic scenarios such as knowing the movies playing near me, or listening to a weekly radio program to work correctly, and without such knowledge, nothing exists to really connect the dots seamlessly.) There are MANY more examples. I just picked two I had to write an aspx page for to actually accomplish.

Lets look at Facebook for a moment. I think this is a very interesting example because it has a lot of components to it which makes it just on the brink of being the next best thing (but is currently held back by having to actually make money). It's not very complicated. There have been other social sites in the past, but none with so many different ways to interact with. Want to share pictures with friends? Got it. Want to chat with friends? Got it. Want to find new friends? Well, too bad. They had it and removed it :P. But they have lots of new ways for organizing your friends into groups which match your relationship with them. Want to do something not on the above list? No problem, just write an app. (Though personally I think that their development platform is really crippled by many of the problems that I mention above. There are so many improvements they could make but probably wont as it would affect the balance of monetizing the overall experience which requires them to keep users on the site as much as possible. This is their current primary flaw, and is the same flaw of all social sites currently.) But until they start looking at how they can better integrate with society as a whole rather that either solving technic al problems or making more money, they wont advance beyond what they have already obtained.

So what is "Web 3.0" I finally ask? Well, I would currently answer that its that plane of web apps that don't exist yet which truly make our lives better and don't make limiting compromises to do so. Along these lines, Live Mesh is not a bad idea actually (though admittedly suffers from my above mentioned flaws). Other than it being heavily marketed (since its goal is still to make money) and having somewhat a silly name, the concept at least of unifying your different devices and experiences is not bad. I see it as TCPIP on top of a variety of media types. If done right, it will grow over time to change the current layout of the web (or inspire others to solve similar social problems). Either way, I still don't think that we are there yet. Will we see something in 2008? Probably not. The next big thing might have been invented already, but just isn't being used in the right way yet, or just isn't popular enough yet (since you actually need a critical mass of people to use something for it to be valuable to others). These are the type of engineering problems I love to work on  / think about. If only there were any money in it ;). (</end circular reference>)



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