Web 2.0: a very short introduction

Introduction

A profound change is happening on the cutting-edge of web development: we are relinquishing control of information. No longer are sites working independently from each other; no longer is information sitting in isolation with no interaction between sites. Rather, the best web programmers are now creating sites that allow information to be reused anywhere.

This means you can include the BBC’s latest news headlines on your site. It means people can keep track of your job vacancies on their desktop. It means instead of having a static map on your contact page you can include a map from Google that can be annotated, dragged around, and zoomed in and out. Ultimately, it means people will no longer need to get your information directly from your web site. That may sound terrifying to some but once you embrace this new paradigm its benefits become obvious. Welcome to the world of Web 2.0.

What’s in a name?

Web 2.0 is a new methodology for creating a web computing platform.

The moniker ‘Web 2.0’ is misleading; it isn’t a new version of the web but a new methodology for creating a web-computing platform. The term was first used by Dale Dougherty of O’Reilly Media while developing ideas with Craig Cline of MediaLive for a technical conference. Dougherty suggested that the web was in a renaissance; while it’s hard to believe something at most fifteen years old is in need of a rebirth it is certain that Web 2.0 is an evolution of the web as it mostly is now.

Web 2.0 can be summarised thus:

  • the web is a platform: just as software is released for Microsoft Windows so to will software be released for the web;
  • data is the focus of everything;
  • build an architecture of participation: that is, systems are designed for user contribution;
  • sites are composed of features pulled from distributed and independent developers;
  • it has lightweight business models; and
  • continual, automatic — almost invisible — software updates rather than a software adoption cycle.

The technologies that allow this to happen already exist; the most important being XML-based syndication and aggregation using RSS and Atom, rich-application support (the web’s current beau in this field is AJAX), and using URLs as a command-line. The last of these will be the focus of a forth-coming paper; for the rest of this one the focus shall be on the first three.

Learning to let go

Syndication and aggregation are grandiose words, aren’t they? But what do they mean? They are all about letting go; about relaxing a little more around your data. Give it some space and see what it can do for you.

In How I learned to stop worrying and relinquish control, Peter Merholz discusses how the big internet companies have relaxed their control over data and made it available to others. Syndication and aggregation are a large part of this.

Using Amazon's data on another site

The sale belongs to Amazon, but the hard-work has been done by someone else.

Syndication is making your content available to any number of others, while aggregation is the process of combining others’ syndicated data for reuse on your own site. Amazon, that leading-light of e-commerce, long ago made its data available to anyone who wanted it. This lead to online shops based entirely on Amazon’s back catalogue, such as Amazon Light and Powertools. Other shops using Amazon’s data? They spend their time building up all that information only for others to use it? How does that help them?

Because each time someone buys something from one of these shops they are actually buying from Amazon, just through a middle-man. Think about it: all the work getting the sale is done by someone else but Amazon gets the lion’s share of the money. Genius.

Flickr is another oft-cited example. Simply put it’s an online photo-sharing service. More importantly it’s a service that embraced the ideals of Web 2.0 (and was recently bought by Yahoo for unspecified millions) that has it standing head-and-shoulders above the competition. Flickr has an interface, known as an API, that not only allows people to get to the data but to add to it too. People have written numerous Windows and Mac applications that allow you to view, download, and upload photos to Flickr — without you ever seeing the web site. As Merholz puts it:

This meant someone could create a free tool that lets me move photos directly from iPhoto [an Apple Mac OS X application] to Flickr. This new-found ease-of-upload increased my Flickr usage so much that I needed to buy a pro account. So get this: someone else did the work, and Flickr got the money. All because they levy so little control.

How can I get in on this act?

So the benefits have been spelled out, and you want a piece of the action; what can you do?

The more you syndicate the more your content will appear on other sites, spreading the word.

First decide what on your site can be syndicated. Do you have frequently-updated news on your site? Syndicate it. Do you have jobs listings on your site? Syndicate them. Some sort of search? Allow search results to be syndicated so people can keep an eye on the top items. Sell products? Then syndicate each category listing and a list of newly-available products. The more you have for syndication the more likely your content will appear on other sites, spreading the word. You just need to let the world know.

If you’re forward-thinking you could ask your web programmers to build an API for your e-commerce site. Then in the future if you want to franchise your business you only need to offer access to the API for each franchisee to access the data. Or you could open it up to the world, as Amazon did.

And it’s not all give. There will be sites out there that have content of interest to you. Do they syndicate it? If they do you can aggregate and use it on your site. This may be as simple as offering news headlines for your industry or geographic region, or allowing you to add related photos to add a splash of colour to your site, but it can be as complicated as you wish.

Web 2.0 doesn’t start and finish with syndication and aggregation either. We’ll finish by discussing how you can add complex functionality to your site, courtesy of Google.

A practical example: Google Maps

Released in early 2005, Google Maps is a web service from the ever-present search company. On the surface it looks like a web site that has some clever maps you can drag around, zoom into and out of, and so on. But there’s something extra-special going on behind the scenes: Google Maps has an API.

Using Amazon's data on another site

Stafffinders’ contact page, complete with maps.

This allowed Mercurytide to do something special in a recent web site redesign for Stafffinders, a recruitment company. On the contact page we use Google Maps to show the locations of their offices. The maps sit in the middle of the page and fully look a part of the Stafffinders site. For a few hours’ work Stafffinders have highly-detailed maps that people can play around with: you can zoom out to see their offices in relation to one another, and you can drag the map around to find the closest railway station or to see how far the office is from your home. This is Web 2.0 in action.

And that’s just the start. We have many plans for how to use the maps on the company’s site — think of what we can do with annotatable maps and a world-wide coverage — and for the other services Web 2.0 offers.

Summary

In this paper we have introduced Web 2.0, an new methodology for using the web as a computing platform. We have seen its ideals (a focus on data, participation, and distribution) and its technologies (syndication, aggregation, and rich-application support). We have discussed the benefits of loosening control over your data, and shown how you can benefit from others relinquishing control of their data. Finally we finished with a concrete example of using Google Maps on a redesigned web site. We hope you enjoyed it.

References

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Mercurytide is a forward thinking, dynamic, and innovative Internet applications development company. We are well-established with a proven track-record within the industry of attracting blue chip clients from around the world. We produce regular white papers on a variety of technology-orientated topics. For more details see the Mercurytide web site.


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