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Defining Web 2.0 is Less Important Than Earning a Profit

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First Published: Mass High Tech: The Journal of New England Technology – November 16, 2006.

Concentrate. Things are about to get complicated. First there was the Internet, then came the web — and now we have Web 2.0. That sounds like a simple enough progression, but not if you’re asked to describe what differentiates Web 2.0 from what came before. If you ask a web designer, the differences are considerable. Ask the average web consumer and they’ll shrug and ask “what’s Web 2.0?”

If you’ve also been wondering what all the fuss is about Web 2.0, you’re not alone. There is a significant disconnect between how we describe the newest web tools and how their application affects the businesses that use them. As technologists we might unwittingly be making it worse.

Back when the Web 2.0 was still just called the web, the online world was one-dimensional. It was still clunky. You could only view one page of information at a time and all that information essentially came from one place. Some exceptions were ad servers and news feeds. Enter Web 2.0, a granular collection of segmented data that is distributed and collected depending on the user’s requirements. Many of the hallmarks of this newer web experience are not new technologies, but their application in many cases is relatively novel.

This summer, the East Coast has been buzzing with talk of another Internet boom. As unsettling as that might sound for some, there is definitely something going on. Michael Schrage from the MIT Media Lab believes that the growth in web businesses this time around will be at “two orders of magnitude that will make the dot-com boom seem quite quaint.” A lot of this buzz has been around Web 2.0, and some think it’s worth another look.

The term “Web 2.0” is generally credited to Dale Dougherty, a VP at O’Reilly, to describe the technologies and websites that differentiated the survivors of the dot-com collapse from their fallen peers. Whether this is true or just another “I invented the Internet” proclamation is not as important as the fact is that the term stuck. Ironically, these very differentiators are providing the latest round of web startups with the impression that these innovations alone are enough to build a business model. Are we falling back into the trap of believing that cool features alone make us attractive to customers? If any of this is sounding familiar, you could be forgiven for thinking it was 1996. Back then your differentiator was that you were an Internet company and Forrester Research predicted about a billion people would be in your target market in the next three years. Now we’re hearing “we’re a Web 2.0 play.” To paraphrase Schrage speaking at this year’s MIT CIO Symposium, innovation is what customers adopt, not what companies do. In light of this position, does adding typical Web 2.0 features to your web application make it interesting enough for a customer to adopt?

A few weeks ago, I was invited to judge the MITX Awards. The category was Web 2.0 and CRM. Not surprisingly, this is a new category and possibly the last appearance it will make. Even with a stellar panel of professors, venture capitalists and business leaders, the subject of “what is Web 2.0” remained somewhat unanswered. Almost all of the companies presenting their submissions for the competition believed it to be the technology the product was built on. One exceptional entrant argued that Web 2.0 describes the user experience and has little to do with one particular type of technological innovation. Is it the technology, the user experience, or the overall functionality that makes them 2.0 and not 1.0? Considering that many of the features we see today are really just an extension of what JavaScript has been doing for some years, it’s hard to give the technology all that much credit.

The significance of the Web 2.0 is more than just a trendy term heard in pitches — but honestly, businesses should not be too concerned about this latest set of features. They should care about how it gets them from A to B. If it reduces the steps needed to fill out a form or make a transaction, then it will get the customer excited. Technology is only a small piece of the consumer’s experience, the distinctive way you’ll beat out the competition and how you’ll generate profits.

Author Richard Banfield

As CEO, Richard leads Fresh Tilled Soil’s strategic vision. He’s a mentor at TechStars and BluePrintHealth, an advisor and lecturer at the Boston Startup School, and serves on the executive committees of TEDxBoston, the AdClub’s Edge Conference, and Boston Regional Entrepreneurship Week.

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