the empty set

Thoughts on Web Strategy

Regularly, I get asked about the future of the web, or what is the next big thing?, what is all this Web 2.0 buzz? or I get called in to talk about web strategy in general or in particular. My answers depends heavily the context and on who is asking - and why.

Where IS the web going? I don't know. To attempt to answer that question, let's go back and think where the web came from. Some fifteen years ago or so I was part of the University of Geneva's multimedia workgroup trying to evalute how multimedia (read a PC with a CD-ROM drive and speakers) could enhance the University's main activitie: teaching, researching and communicating. One bright day of May, we were lucky enough to listen to web pioneer, Tim Berners-Lee, predict the future.

He outlined his vision of a vast repository of infinitely searchable and linked information. He called it world wide web (shortened as www or w3 or w cube). Invented by Tim Berners-Lee, Sam Walker and Robert Cailliau, it allowed scientists across the world to cross reference scientific papers, share and reference ressources through hypertext links in a distributed network configuration.

In 2007, we are well into the current era of the web, commonly referred to as Web 2.0. A buzzword that gets a lot of mainstream media attention that was coined by Tim O'Reilly to promote a web conference and is best avoided in my opinion. Features of this phase of the web include search, social networks, online media (music, video, etc), content aggregation and syndication, mashups, and much more.

As I write these lines, the web is still mostly accessed via a PC, but we're starting to see more web excitement from mobile devices and television sets. The biggest impact of the web in the future won't necessarily be via a computer screen, as your online activity will be mixed with your presence, travels, objects you buy or act with.

The semantic web

Currently, one of the big areas of interest is the semantic web, a project that aims to bring meaning to the millions of pages of text on the web. It is not just a philosophical concept, but a real attempt to allow computers to "understand" words rather than just displaying them.

The semantic web is about machines talking to machines. It's about making the web more 'intelligent', or as Berners-Lee himself described it: computers "analyzing all the data on the web – the content, links, and transactions between people and computers."

Computers "analyzing all the data on the web – the content, links, and transactions between people and computers."

The building blocks are here already: RDF, OWL, microformats are a few of them. But it will take some time to annotate the world's information and then to capture personal information in the right way.

Eventually, the semantic web will link all sorts of information - photographs, events, retail information as well as physical things, people and places - and allow it to be processed automatically, to bring greater meaning. The bridge between the virtual and physical worlds will become narrower with the mobile revolution and the web's potential to connect billions of mobile devices across the world.

The power of the web fundamentally stems from joining things up and sharing.

Unfortunately, the global picture isn't that bright. All of that data being created by the life sciences, and other similar groups, is behind closed doors. It isn’t available to the public, and doesn’t hook into any web. As for RSS data which represent between 5 and 10 million files on the web, well most of them aren't useful because of poorly coded RDF data.

Social networking and virtual worlds

Although some of the technical underpinnings of the semantic web are still a few years off, other changes to how we use the web, that have already occurred. Typically, how people use and contribute to the web.

Back in 1994 people were beginning to use web browsers but significantly, and perhaps unexpectedly at that moment, people started publishing web content too.

The web can now be accessed almost anywhere. The web changed from a tool for disseminating information to a place where anyone could publish almost anything. This phenomenon has been taken even further in recent years with webpages that allow users to contribute to and edit existing sites.

Blogs, wikis, social and sharing networking sites like Facebook, Flickr, MySpace, Jaiku, Pownce or Twitter and file-sharing services have transformed the web into a truly interactive experience. This social dimension, where people's participation adds value to the web, is proving hugely significant.

Some predict that virtual worlds such as Second Life, which gets a lot of mainstream media attention, will become future web system. Looking at Korea as an example, as the 'young generation' grows up and infrastructure is built out, virtual worlds will become a vibrant market all over the world over the next 10 years.

It's not just about digital life, but also making our real life more digital. On one hand we have the rapid rise of Second Life and other virtual worlds. On the other we are beginning to annotate our planet with digital information, via technologies like Google Earth.

Mobile Web

It has been said for a while now that the Mobile Web will be the Next Big Thing. It's already big in parts of Asia and Europe, and the US market will certainly grow significantly this year following the release of Apple's iPhone, or the much rumoured Goggle gPhone (Google is trying to buy the rights to part of the wireless frequency spectrum to be auctioned off soon by the Federal government, to eventually become a carrier). This is just the beginning. In a not to distant future, there will probably be many more location-aware services available via mobile devices; Look for the big Internet companies like Yahoo and Google to become key mobile portals, alongside the mobile operators - or becoming operators themselves.

Companies like Nokia, Sony-Ericsson, Palm, Blackberry and Microsoft have been active in the Mobile Web for years now, but one of the main issues with Mobile Web has always been usability. The iPhone has a revolutionary UI that makes it easier for users to browse the web, using zooming, pinching and other methods. Also, the iPhone is a strategy that may expand Apple's sphere of influence, from web browsing to social networking and even possibly search.

Web Sites as Web Services

More and more of the web is becoming remixable, the entire system is turning into both a platform and the database. Major web sites are going to be transformed into web services - and will effectively expose their information to the world. Such transformations are never smooth - e.g. scalability is a big issue and legal aspects are never simple. But, it is not a question of if web sites become web services, but when and how.

The transformation will happen in one of two ways. Some web sites will follow the example of Amazon, del.icio.us and Flickr and will offer their information via a REST API. Others will try to keep their information proprietary, but it will be opened via mashups created using services like Dapper, Teqlo and Yahoo! Pipes. The net effect will be that unstructured information will give way to structured information - paving the road to more intelligent computing.

Rich Internet Apps

As the current trend of hybrid web/desktop apps continues, expect to see RIA (rich internet apps) continue to increase in use and functionality. Adobe's AIR platform (Adobe Integrated Runtime - formerly known as Adobe Apollo) is one of the leaders, along with Microsoft with its Windows Presentation Foundation (check out the community). Also in the mix is Laszlo with its open source OpenLaszlo platform and there are several other startups offering RIA platforms. Let's not forget also that Ajax is generally considered to be an RIA.

Google Docs or Google Calendar are good examples of free, user friendly collaborative online applications. They are still at the beginning. The next step will be to integrate them into a portal and let the user modify them offline and have them sync when he gets back online.

International web

As of 2007, the US is still the major market in the web. But in 10 years time, things might be very different. China is often touted as a growth market, but other countries with big populations will also grow - India and African nations for example.

For most web apps and websites, the US market makes up over 50% of their users. Indeed, comScore reported in November 2006 that 3/4 of traffic to top websites is international. comScore said that 14 of the top 25 US web properties now attract more visitors from outside the US than from within. That includes the top 5 US properties - Yahoo! Sites, Time Warner Network, Microsoft, Google Sites, and eBay.

However, it is still early days and the revenues are not big in international markets at this point. In a not so distant future, revenue will probably be flowing from the International web.

Internationalisation and localisation will become the next big challenge. Localisation isn't just the plain translation of an English website in different languages, but an adaptation to the cultural factors of the targeted population. In Japan for example, it is considered very rude and intrusive for a form (or a 'buy' button) to be at the top of a page. A explanatory text always precedes every form which are located at the bottom of webpages. Not quite the same picture than in the western culture.

Personalization

Personalization has been a strong theme in 2007, particularly with Google. But you can see this trend play out among a lot of web startups and companies - from Facebook, Last.fm to MyStrands or Yahoo homepage and more.

Google (again) is a good example. Sep Kamvar, Lead Software Engineer for Personalization at Google, said:

"We have various levels of personalization. For those who are signed up for Web History, we have the deepest personalization, but even for those who are not signed up for Web History, we personalize your results based on what country you are searching from. As we move forward, personalization will continue to be a gradient; the more you share with Google, the more tailored your results will be."

If you want to read more on strategy, check out Greg Storey's excellent paper on ALA "Never Get Involved in a Land War in Asia (or Build a Website for No Reason)".

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