Ben TothBen Toth
Health Perspectives

Although Web 2.0 is merely a slogan – invented by textbook publishers O’Reilly in 2004 – it encapsulates some compelling trends and ideas which are far beyond the hype behind Google’s $1.6bn purchase of YouTube.

The term was devised to characterise a set of transitions in the user’s relationship with the web. The table below, taken from Tim O’Reilly’s founding article, shows that that there is no single difference between old and new.

‘Web 1.0’Web 2.0
Britannica OnlineWikipedia

Personal websites

Page viewsCost per click
Content management systemsWikis

Web 2.0 is not a unified concept, nor is it clearly distinguishable from ‘Web 1.0’ (whatever that is). It’s a set of interconnected designs, technologies, architectures and styles of web-based software application. But there are a number of characteristics that Web 2.0 all share.

How to spot a Web 2.0 application

Often Web 2.0 software is browser-based, which means portability, and nothing to install and maintain on the users machine. Applications can be used from any computer. However, this means they only work when online, an important limitation — although some applications are beginning to overcome the offline barrier.

The user experience is often key to Web 2.0 software; particularly with regard to users contributing information. The interface is usually relatively rich, too – if we assume that browsers were basically designed to show text and pictures, then the functionality displayed by applications such as EditGrid is surprising and impressive. Design is part of this – oversized fonts, pastel shades, rounded shapes and odd names are often encountered.

Web 2.0 applications try very hard to solve problems that users experience and see the world through users’ eyes. This involves bringing users into the software development process and ensuring that the application can learn from user activity. Hence, they may challenge existing business models. Skype and Salesforce, for example, offer dramatic challenges to telephony and CRM software. The value proposition is the network that the application creates. This is most obvious in MySpace.

The applications can often work together (the idea of ‘mashups’, or modular software), although not all Web 2.0 applications are inter-related. But some are – JungleDisk uses Amazon’s servers to store data and LibraryThing use Amazon to look up books. Livewriter works with all blogging tools.

As well as working together, they often share data. Most Web 2.0 applications allow data to be shared through APIs and the XML-based syndication service RSS. Some Web 2.0 applications are built on top of APIs – TheyWorkForYou for example.

Software is often upgraded regularly. EBay, for example, has a new release of software every two weeks. The development cost of Web 2.0 applications can be very low – some of the best have been developed by 1-2 people over a few months using freely available development tools, free or low cost software and hardware and agile development techniques.

Working examples

Some notable Web 2.0 applications

The best way to get a feel for the new world is to look at a few applications that clearly belong there., for instance, is an application that allows you to bookmark web pages and add a keywords to them. There are several Web 2.0 aspects to it; it works through a web browser and it is simple and useful. But most of all, it allows you to see what other people are tagging; it’s a type of social software. Of course, it’s free.

Another popular site is Wikipedia, an online encyclopaedia. It has many of the same 2.0 characteristics as but the highlight of Wikipedia is that the content is written and edited by users.

TheyWorkForYou gives easy access to information about MPs by processing the data from Parliament’s website. Users can subscribe to feeds that alert them whenever a particular MP speaks in Parliament, and discuss debates.

The importance of users

User feedback was foreseen by hypertext inventor Sir Tim Berners-Lee in his concept of the Read/Write Web, and by pioneering discussion groups such as the Well. But it has become possible because enduring trends that started in Web 1.0 are transforming it from within. Broadband is increasingly available, and with that there are more and more people using the web at the same time.

Technology has played a part in this, too. Agile programming environments such as Laszlo, Apollo and Ruby, make it easier and faster to develop web applications, and they have become easier to use through the extension of browser functionality.

Web 2.0 has its critics, who consider it no more to it than marketing spin. But the impact that it is having on big business and big IT business is too significant to dismiss. At Microsoft, Bill Gates has appointed Ray Ozzie as chief technical officer to meet the challenges it brings.

Web 2.0 may well be criticised, though, for its lack of real technical innovation. In particular, Web 2.0 is not the Semantic Web envisaged by Berners-Lee — a system that is meaningful to computers as well as humans.

But in a future-gazing article Paul Ford outlined how the big beasts of Web 2.0 — Google in particular — could create the Semantic Web. Ford’s article suffers from the Yogi Berra problem ("It’s tough to make predictions, especially about the future") but what it suggests is that the route to intelligent data objects may run through practical evolution rather than academic conferences.

Looking beyond the current crop of Web 2.0 applications, the next wave of Web innovation may emerge from efforts to implement the vision for Semantic Web set out by Berners-Lee and colleagues. Significantly, the article included a Semantic Web-driven health application. And Web 2.0 will have a potential impact on present day healthcare computing.

Further reading

Tim O’Reilly: What is Web 2.0?

Categorised list of applications

Nicholas Carr: The amorality of Web 2.0