It is nearly five years since internet guru Tim O’Reilly came up with the term Web 2.0 to signal a second coming of the web after the dot com bust.
Since that time, the core ideas of Web 2.0 – of the internet as a computing platform and of value being created by linking people and/or applications online – have also entered the mainstream. No chief information officer (CIO) can ignore Web 2.0 developments. But it is only natural to question what will come next. And according to O’Reilly, Web 2.0’s successor will be web to the power of two, or “Web Squared”.
Web Squared is the theme of the next Web 2.0 Summit in San Francisco on 20-22 October. The idea is that Web Squared is emerging as our dependence on the internet grows and as web-based thinking is applied beyond computing. The “squared” part is supposed to reflect the way web activity will grow exponentially as Web 2.0 applications are increasingly fed data not just by human beings typing on keyboards, but also by cameras and other types of sensor.
Cameras and online sensors will create a mass of largely unstructured data that at first may appear difficult to process and of limited value. However, as more audiovisual data is tagged with GPS co-ordinates, and as vision and speech recognition improve, so the potential will exist to create value by inter-linking data from an emerging “internet of things” in the same way that Facebook and Twitter allow people to create value by establishing social connections online.
The internet of Web Squared will be a network that knows where users are, recognises what they are looking at, and interprets what they say within the context of their location.
Entering augmented reality
Augmented reality will be one of the first applications to make use of Web Squared developments. Holding up a mobile device and seeing additional inf ormation overlaid on its real-time camera feed is likely to be mainstream within a few years. This will require sophisticated database management to tie together in real time textual and numeric data with image banks and GPS co-ordinates. This kind of processing will allow applications in the cloud to recognise what they see in a video feed and overlay relevant additional information.
For example, imagine a customer being able to obtain information on every product they can point their phone at by GPS tracking where their handset is, and/or applying vision recognition to what is on the screen. Or entering a boardroom and seeing background information on everybody present floating virtually over their heads. Or speaking the words “nearest Chinese restaurant” into a phone and having a route overlaid on the screen. The Layar browser and Yelp on the iPhone have already shown us the potential of augmented reality.
CIOs therefore need to start thinking about how their companies will contribute to the new kinds of data mash-up if they are to be visible in augmented reality. Not least one challenge will be that in augmented reality, only absolute real time will be good enough.
Extending Web 2.0 philosophies
There is, however, more to Web Squared than new types of application that will process the immense data shadows soon to be cast by the emerging internet of things. More broadly, Web Squared is also about recognising that Web 2.0 has been as concerned with embracing new philosophies as new technologies. And in championing Web Squared, O’Reilly is signalling that the Web 2.0 ideologies of openness, transparency and rapid, collaborative value creation may have significant value well beyond the internet.
Almost certainly, many people will have to work together dynamically and at high speed if we are to respond adequately to the next decade’s key challenges of oil, water and global food shortages and climate change. A big idea of Web Squared is that this may be achieved by applying the philosophies of Web 2.0 to mainstream politics and business thinking.
The CIO opportunity?
There could also be good news for the enlightened CIO. Today, the IT function in many companies is at a crossroads in the face of cloud computing developments that threaten to give users the kind of flexibility once briefly promised by personal computing and then cruelly snatched away. The CIOs who are embracing the cloud and not trying to build barricades around their datacentres are the ones who understand the philosophies as well as the technologies of Web 2.0, and who will also very much grasp Web Squared. This therefore means that they and their staff already possess those conceptual and management skills likely to be in increasing demand.
Smart IT professionals may now be able to teach the rest of the company a thing or two about more than just IT. However, the Web Squared movement is likely to be another nail in the coffin of those CIOs and IT staff who have, over the past five years, resisted helping users to take full advantage of the technologies and philosophies of Web 2.0.
So is Web Squared a development to which CIOs will have to respond immediately? Well, aside from prepping themselves to brief their chief executive on what it is about when it appears in the Financial Times in late October, absolutely not. However, Web Squared is an IT-centric idea that is likely to get a great deal of popular attention over the next year or so.
Web Squared is likely to take off partly because O’Reilly has a powerful media machine and a habit of getting things right. The Web Squared term is also likely to prove popular because there is a growing sense that over the past year, Web 2.0 has been evolving into something more powerful and is now in need of a new name. Finally, as the fallout of the credit crunch slowly begins to dissipate, there is also a broader appetite for any new way of thinking that embraces openness and collaboration.
With the internet now reaching 40 years of age, to suggest as O’Reilly does that the “world” and the “worldwide web” are now no more separable than “business” and “e-business” – and that the real legacy of Web 2.0 is already its philosophy – is likely to be an idea than many will find attractive.
CIOs and others in IT may therefore expect those around them to increasingly want to know about the philosophy behind current cutting-edge IT developments. They may even want to start speaking our language. And that at least could be a refreshing change.
Christopher Barnatt is associate professor of computing and future studies at Nottingham University Business School, and the author of ExplainingComputers.com