This posting is the first of a series is not designed to provide a technical understanding of Web 2.0 but help PR people understand what they can bring to the table and how they should help out.
What is Web 2.0?
The first rule of Web 2.0 is that you don't describe it as Web 2.0. If you break this rule, you're obviously a know-nothing marketer or a grasping journalist looking for a bandwagon to hang your hat.
The movers and shakers in this movement consider that label to be so two-to-three years ago. Forrester Research uses the label XInternet so they can make it sound as if they alone have discovered an online future, personally I think that they may have read too many comics as a child and in the middle age still want to be Wolverine.
Ok, social movements seem to coalesce and have their time and the media and everyone else like to put a name on it because a name gives you power over it, an understanding , makes it tangible.
That's why many 'primitive' civilisations had a big thing about not giving out your real name, kind of like policemen with their badge numbers when at the scene of an incident.
So Web 2.0 is a label like acid house, hippies, the beat generation, rave and indie.
The phrase came out of a conference run by IT publisher O'Reilly Media. From this Tim O'Reilly wrote an essay about the kind of things that made up the phenomena of Web 2.0. He did not come up with a trite definition but came up with a number of symptoms that indicate Web 2.0-ness.
Like the judge in a famous obsenity trial, most people have struggled to neatly define Web 2.0, but know it when they see it.
The Web 2.0 pioneers usually came out of bootstrapped enterprises, they achieved a lot quickly by being made up of small highly talented teams rather than the traditional IT development approach of using body shops like IBM Global Services, Accenture or EDS. Indeed the skills sets of these companies are completely in the wrong place both in terms of technologies and project management.
Tools like XML were widely looked on as a successor to EDI (electronic data interchange) in the enterprise, rather than the bedrock of building applications themselves.
Web 2.0 is: A set of values - Web 2.0 companies tend to have a common set of values that affect everything they do. They are technically led and influenced by the philosophy of the open source community. They're products include elements of online collaboration where the consumer is both producer and consumer or prosumer as Alvin Toffler put it, such as social networks, tagging, folksonomies, user-generated content.
Many of the successful companies in this area where boot-strapped together, rather than funded by venture capitalists, this gives them a mom-and-pop feel - more of this this later when we talk about communities. Many are community-minded, by this I do not mean that they're members of the Rotarians, but they think about how the products can be used by people like them. They not only consider themselves to be facilitators of these communities but part of the community themselves
A set of design principles - Ok, so there is a cliched look with rounded fonts and the use of AJAX to provide a dynamic user experience is a bit of a cliche, but Web 2.0 applications generally have an approach to doing things that is framed by what has gone before and the limitations imposed by being small and beautiful.
They generally focus on doing something well, a product is not finished when its good enough but evolves through a dialogue with consumers. Rather than trying to be all things to all people by providing a monolithic set of products, Web 2.0 products have open APIs that allow their functionality be the brought together or 'mashed-up'.
A way of looking at a problem - Web 2.0 companies largely seem to be dead set against feature creep in a way that conventional software companies could learn from. On the flipside they have also been accused of being features rather than businesses as they are focused on providing the best solution to do a particular job.
This goes the convergent direction that hardware manufacturers in the mobile phone and consumer electronics sectors have been going down. Much of the developments that have driven Web 2.0 have as much to do with social engineering as technology: take Amazon's ratings systems for goods purchased on the site or the use of tags on services like Flickr.
An interesting take on IP - Microsoft is looking at registering over 5,000 patents a year, yet companies like Google provide open APIs that allow developers to build on their work. A classic example of this is the local search product provided online at 118118.com which utlises Google maps and Thomson directory listings together with rail data from thetrainline.com.
In addition, the approach of making frequent evolutionary improvements on a product does not lend itself well to patent laws as outside the US patent filers do not have 12-months grace to file on an invention in the public domain but have to file before it goes public.
There seems to be a dichotomy. The services themselves are build on easily available tools from Linux servers to open source scripting languages. The war in Web 2.0 is less about intellectual property ownership and more about 'owning' the smartest people to conjure up new ideas and take things in new directions.
A way of doing business - Web 2.0 companies provide open interfaces because they believe that there is a network effect happening when the API is used that has a positive benefit for the originator so long as there is attribution. This is in stark contrast to the more defensive approach by conventional software companies and existing web businesses. These open APIs could also allow a user on one service to move their existing data over to another newer better web service at any point in the future. It's like a bank advertising the fact that they make it easy for you move if you're ever dissatisfied with their service.
A new set of challenges - How do you build a community when your product grows beyond your early adopter peers? How do you communicate the value you provide? How do you educate people on the benefits of them doing your work for you. Encouraging them to tag, link to friends or provide their own content? How do you convince people that you can make money when you give away your service to potential competitors through open APIs?
A reaction to what has gone before - Cause and effect. The inadequacies of the software industry and current internet offerings, together with the rise of XML, cheap tools, widespread broadband, growth in processing power, cheaper storage and maturing open source applications were the midwives to the birth of web 2.0.