At a tech conference in San Francisco in June, Andrew Muse had an idea that was fresh and redundant. Wouldn't it be great, he wondered...
At a tech conference in San Francisco in June, Andrew Muse had an idea that was fresh and redundant.
Wouldn’t it be great, he wondered, if you could shorten an overly long Web-site link to make it easier to send to others? Tools for that already existed online, he knew, but one could go further by incorporating the latest technologies, such as RSS and tagging.
The idea drove Muse to his laptop, where he zapped instant messages to colleagues about the project.
Four days later, ElfURL.com was online and free to use. The project cost about $500. The service has been visited by more than 100,000 users, he said.
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The anecdote is indicative of a growing movement online that’s not only reviving investment in dot-coms, but, some say, is changing the very nature of the Web itself. The phenomenon has been called by different names. One has stuck: Web 2.0.
Defining the craze is tricky. Even on the online encyclopedia Wikipedia, there are several definitions under the “Web 2.0” entry (and depending on your definition, Wikipedia may or may not be a Web 2.0 site).
At its core, Web 2.0 is about two things: The first is a new era of Web development where many of the basic building blocks to creating new online tools have already been designed and are freely available. The result is that ideas for simple but useful projects like Muse’s ElfURL can be implemented quickly and on the cheap.
In the know
Hot Web 2.0 sites
Flickr.com: Photo-sharing site allows users to label their photos, called tags, and search for photos by tag names. Acquired by Yahoo! in March.
del.icio.us: Calling itself a social-bookmark manager, the site lets users maintain the list of their favorite Web sites online and tag them under different categories. By searching the site’s tags, users can discover new sites and meet other users. Acquired recently by Yahoo!
37signals.com: Chicago-based firm designing Web-based software celebrated for its simplicity. Offerings include Basecamp, a project manager, and Writeboard, a word-processing program. Its developer’s tool, Ruby on Rails, has become the foundation for many Web 2.0 sites.
Wikipedia.org: Nonprofit online encyclopedia that boasts more than 800,000 entries, all written collaboratively by site’s users. Information tends to be more current, but accuracy is never guaranteed.
Flock.com: Web browser under development that incorporates Web 2.0 tools to make it easier to blog, post photos on Flickr and share and compare bookmarks on del.icio.us.
My Web 2.0: Yahoo!’s next-generation search engine allows users to tag and share sites while searching (myweb2.search.yahoo.com).
Pluck.com: Austin, Texas-based company gaining ground with several tools including an RSS feeder, tagging software and blogging program.
HousingMaps.com: Site merges Google Maps with listings from craigslist.org to provide a map of real-estate listings in major cities.
“We’re finally getting to the place where everybody wanted us to be years ago,” said Jake McKee, a veteran Web developer from Garland, Texas. “That’s a huge reason why you’re seeing developers kick off their shoes, I think, and run with some pretty creative concepts.”
The other major component of Web 2.0 is a new breed of social software that encourages users to create a site’s content and use it in different ways.
ElfURL, along with a host of other tools Muse is developing with a company in Dallas called Weblogs Work, will be distributed freely on the Web for others to use and enhance. The hope is that people will find innovative ways of using the company’s technology that the original designers had never imagined.
“Web experiences aren’t things you control so much,” said Brian Oberkirch, chief executive of Weblogs Work, a self-described Web 2.0 company. “It’s more that you create a sandbox people can play in.”
The term “Web 2.0” was coined in 2004 by employees of computer-book publisher O’Reilly Media and marketing firm MediaLive. Executives from the two companies were looking for a catchy title for a conference focusing on the new Internet economy.
The phrase has since become a catchall for various cutting-edge trends that some say are leading the way toward a better Internet. Several blogs have emerged that are devoted to tracking the development of Web 2.0 companies and ideas. Since August, England-based blog Web2.0central.com has identified about 100 such companies.
So what makes a startup part of the Web 2.0 club? It usually involves the company employing at least one of the following technologies or concepts:
• Tagging: The seemingly simple idea of categorizing content has found a passionate following on the Web. Proponents say having people label content online is the best way to organize information; because it takes advantage of the collective wisdom of everyone online.
• RSS: It’s been likened to an online paperboy. Short for Really Simple Syndication, the technology allows users to have their favorite sites send content directly to them. Most blogs and news sites offer RSS feeds of their latest content. Feeds can be delivered to a personal Web page or accessed directly from a computer desktop with Web access. The technology has also fueled interest in audio content that has come to be called podcasting.
• Mashups: Google has been a leader in this trend of remixing the Web. The company has taken its most popular services and made freely available the basic technology behind them — application-program interfaces, or APIs. Tinkering with open APIs has become a popular pastime among tech geeks.
• Web services: With broadband connections linking people to the Web as soon as they turn on their computer, the thinking goes that applications like word processing shouldn’t be stuck on desktops. Support for the idea has grown since Microsoft announced in November a strategy shift toward Internet-based services. Online-only versions of Windows and Office are on the way.
The mania over Web 2.0, coupled with the phenomenal success of Google’s public offering, has renewed interest in dot-com investment. The new dash to fund the next big dot-com has even raised rumblings of another bubble.
Investment in Internet-specific companies began rising again in 2004, according to the National Venture Capital Association.
Venture capitalists have invested $2.2 billion in the sector for the first three quarters of 2005 and are expected to outpace last year’s outlay of $2.7 billion.
That’s still a ways to go from 2000, when investment in Internet companies peaked at $44 billion.
“It’s not going gangbusters, which frankly we’re happy to see,” association spokeswoman Emily Mendell said. “We don’t want any particular sector to get overinvested.”
Some in the tech community are trying to throw cold water on the fervor.
Popular tech blogger Joel Spolsky said on his site JoelOnSoftware.com in November that the hype over Web 2.0 is just the latest incarnation of the tech industry trying to self-generate excitement.
Web 2.0 is “a big, vague, nebulous cloud of pure architectural nothingness,” Spolsky wrote. “When people use the term ‘Web 2.0,’ I always feel a little bit stupider for the rest of the day.”
Leia Scofield, a Web developer in Dallas and creator of several sites including DFWBlogs.com, said people are becoming cynical about the phenomenon and joking about the need to return to “Web 1.0.”
“The Web’s definitely changing, but it’s not like it’s a whole brand-new shiny Web,” Scofield said. “We’re working toward Bubble 2.0, I think.”