What is Web 2.0? Internet revolution or cliched gimmick? Microsoft web architect, Michael Platt, thinks that it's mostly smoke, but there's a fire burning there somewhere...
What is Web 2.0? Can it even be accurately defined? Wikipedia defines it as "a perceived second-generation of web-based communities and hosted services — such as social-networking sites, wikis and folksonomies — which aim to facilitate collaboration and sharing between users."
I asked Microsoft's Michael Platt -- a Web Architect with the Architecture Strategy Group, about where the future of the internet lies, and how people are shaping the net as well as being shaped by the net.
|Michael Platt - Web Architect with Microsoft's Architecture Strategy Group
APC: There’s not a lot of agreement about web 2.0 is. When you think of Web 2.0, how you see it?
MP: I see as a couple of different elements. I see it as web as a platform, which includes things like software-as-a-service and things like that.
Then I see it as a set of social things, ways of people using the Web, ways of new usage of the platform itself.
I split it in two: the computing part of it - what it is going to mean in terms of providing a platform on the web, and secondly, what the new applications or usages are, in particular in the social sense.
Steve Ballmer talks about the new “compute”, which means the new Web platform and user experience, and how people are going to use that platform moving forwards.
APC: So, how do you think people are going to use it moving forwards?
MP: I don’t particularly like Web 2.0 as a term because I think that we’re actually just beginning to put the platform in place.
It is very similar to what happened in the early days of the PC: we came up with this platform but didn’t really know it was going to be used for.
Then we found people that were building applications, to do things that you would never have dreamed of people doing on PC, like designing aircraft – when the PC first came out, you wouldn’t have thought that Boeing would be building aircraft on it.
I think the same thing is true of the Web. We’re are the point where we’re just beginning to put a platform together and what the applications look like on top of that is difficult to anticipate.
It certainly incorporates things which we think of as being too complex today to do - a lot of the very big computational stuff - SETI@Home, for example.
APC: What sort of social impact is the web having?
MP: The original PC had a huge social impact, and we’ll see the Web having a much bigger social impact than it does today.
People growing up with it will obviously be much more familiar with it, and their approach to personal information will be different too. There 's a research project called Digital Bits going on inside Microsoft - that’s where everything [the project participants] have ever done is held - videos of everything you do, pictures, etc. You then decide what it is you want people to see or not see, and the new Web platform makes that happen.
It will also have an immense impact on intellectual property and on legalese as a whole - our legal systems are really going to struggle. Our legal systems and our concept of property are things which developed over 200 years ago when property was physical, like a table. Now, when "property" is your image and you can pass that around and it be redistributed in a flash, what does that mean for the law? The law doesn’t really have that as a concept built into it
APC: Do you think that simple being a part of this environment infers certain rights? For example, I’ve just taken three pictures of you. It's my camera and my SD card but they’re pictures of you. Are you entitled to have a say with what I do with them?
MP: Indeed. To take another example, I do a lot of things on eBay, so I have an eBay ID and an eBay rating. My rating is really a testable measure of trust that people have in me, so I should be able to use that somewhere else, shouldn’t I? It’s a piece of information about me which I should be able to take somewhere else (not eBay) as proof that I’m reasonably honest and trustable.
And this area is called attention data. It’s where you’re going, what you’re doing and so on. In theory, I feel this data should be mine but in practice – and I’m not a lawyer so don’t quote me on this one - I think it actually belongs to the company.
Google is a classic case of this. What Google do is they monitor where people are going and they aggregate that attention data and then resell it. That's how the page ranking system works, when you think about it. How does somebody get to the top? Because a lot of people went to that site so there's a lot of attention data focused there.
Now, each person individually has put into that system and therefore some of that is their personal information, but you could never get it out and nobody thinks of that as being their information, or any rights they may have to it. And the weird thing is that at the moment, being able to aggregate that data is very valuable, as you can see. There’ll be interesting times ahead on that one.
But to create a platform which supports all of this seamlessly...the first thing you’d need to be able to do is log on across all different systems. At the moment it’s just a pain in the neck. Then you have to create some method of identifying trusted users – how do you know it’s you or not?
Spam has been a major problem in that regard, but it will go away fairly soon - we’ll be able to start tying particular addresses and names to real people. Once you start doing that, then you can start to cut out spam.
Once you’ve identified the person then you say, well OK, do I trust this person? What is their reputation? There’s a lot of people looking at how to collect information about somebody’s reputation. I can see in 10 years time, maybe less, that there’ll be loads of personal information on the Web - you’ll be able to go and look at somebody and there'll be information about what they did, where they’ve been, how trustworthy they are, all those different things which we know about people who we know personally. It's similar to credit checking, but I see that concept being much more widespread.
Indeed, people today go out and have a look on the Web when they hire people. I certainly do. If somebody sends a resume into me, the first thing I do is search on the Net.
APC: You Google them?
MP (laughing): I didn’t say that.
APC (laughing): Of course.
MP (laughing): Let's say “Your favourite search engine”
So you check them out and see what they‘re doing. On that note, I blog for two reasons - one is because I like it as a diary. The second is that it's effectively part of my professional resume. If I go for another job I know people can look me up and they’ll see what I’ve been doing.
The weird thing for me is that I’m of a particular generation where I don’t put personal information out there – I find the whole thing rather scary. But I think younger people don’t have that mindset. They seem to find that the Web is inherently a much friendlier place than I do and they're putting all sorts of information out there which I'd never dream of doing. It’s going to be interesting to see what happens in 10 years time as teenagers today grow up and people can go back and look at what they wrote 10 years ago. I’m not sure the stuff I wrote 10 or 20 years ago I would particularly want to be still following me around.
APC: Like adolescent and teenage outpourings being used against them when they’re 25.
MP: Maybe there were teachers that you didn’t particularly like…exactly. It’s going to be very interesting. But you know, if it happens widely enough, then maybe that will make it will less of an issue.
APC: Certainly everyone agrees at least that as time progresses there will be a much greater impact on the way that we are do things, but no one has suggested whether or not that impact will be positive or negative. Obviously hard to tell, but what’s your gut feeling?
MP: Everything has some good elements, everything has some bad elements to it, and I think it’s too complex to call. There’ll certainly be some very good things that come out of it as well as bad things. Regardless, I think you can’t stop it, and I think it will happen much more quickly than we're currently anticipating. One of the weird things about people is that if you don’t want to do something, it takes forever to make it happen, but if something they want to do, it will happen really fast. It generally happens faster than we can build a technology to achieve it. We’ve certainly seen that with the social thing. People want to communicate. They want to be closer together, they want to be linked better.
In the last 50 or 100 years, we’ve broken a lot of social systems. Originally, for thousands of years, we’ve been in small communities of 50 or 100 people in small communities. That's the way we’re designed, that’s the way we work.
We’ve broken that. For example, I live in the US, my family is in the UK and my son is in Australia. So we’ve broken the traditional model, and modern life has changed the way we’re designed to function. I think that what people are looking for from the Web is a way of rebuilding those connections, and we’ll see people create lives with greater emphasis on those early, fundamental social elements. This will effectively overturn a lot of things that happened during the Industrial Revolution, which was a very bad thing in lots of ways.
APC: For society, you mean?
MP: For society. For people in general. I think that we’re going full circle and a lot what was was changed will revert to how it used to be. The question is - is that good? I suppose it will make people happy, at least, and if you equate goodness with happiness, then we do have the opportunity to make people more satisfied with their lot by improving communications that were broken.
I think the two main things damaged by the Industrial Revolution is people's sense of community and "closeness", and the educational system. We built an educational system essentially designed to teach people how to run machines and that's where the current system still is, and it's no longer needed.
The only reason I believe the Web is having the most impact is because of marketing. You can see that today with all the viral marketing that's out there. But going forwards, we’re going to see a huge impact in training and education as well, because when you look back, how did we used to be educated? It was people sat around a campfire telling stories. That’s actually how we're designed learn and I think we can go back to that. We don’t actually “learn” in schools. The education system was built to prepare people to work in an industrial society. I think we’re no longer in an industrial society in that sense - rather we’re an information society.
APC: Looking at the idea of people being geared to "function" in small communities - you can see that creeping back via things like MySpace and FaceBook. People who have maybe five or six friends in real life and don’t know people who live over the road, yet they have 50 friends on MySpace. It’s like people are heading out there and trying to recreate that little bubble.So having said that, do you think that Web 2.0 (for want of a better term) is essentially a socially-driven technology or is it something external creating a technology-driven society?
MP: Well, the interesting thing about Web 2.0 is that there’s actually no new technology. We built the technology for Web 2.0 ten years ago and it’s taken this length of time for society to pick up on the opportunities it had from that and start to use them. Going forwards, we’ll see more change coming from the social aspects, driving things back into the technology.
Look at HTML and URLs - they’re such simple concepts. Everybody knows what a URL is, yet it's had such amazingly significant and profound effects which nobody would ever have anticipated. We’re at the point where we've realised that our systems are built on these very simple things, and now we can go back and say, “There's a real demand for social aspects and business aspects that we didn’t even think about. How do we build the technology to support that?”
Here's an example. People do obviously want to build little communities, and there’s a lot of statistics that show a group of 11 or so is the optimum size. People will want to build these groups of 11 people but we don’t have anything in today's technology today to help them do that.
APC: You mean that online communities at the moment consist of either you or you plus 40,000 others?
MP: Exactly. There’s private or there’s completely public, and life’s just not like that.
APC: What about the issue of anonymity and privacy? People seem to have an expectation that they can be anonymous online, but from the perspective of communication and social interaction, anonymity isn't the basis of a genuine conversation. If we were speaking and I wore a mask and a black suit, you wouldn’t actually know it was me. Would we interacting in any meaningful sense?
MP: Yes, and what will happen as we go forwards is that you’ll be able to generate a rich enough image of yourself so that people can interact with you meaningfully. Take Second Life as an example - you can create your own avatar and that’s not you, but it’s a representation of who you’d like to think you are and people can interact with that.
I don’t think anybody knows who you are. Everybody has their own view of who you are and they all interact with that view. It will change you and your perception, depending on who you’re talking to and I think that we’ll have the richness in the Web to be able to express those multiple facets of your personality.
And what's that going to look like? How are people going to represent themselves, how are you going to interact with people when you have that flexibility? At the moment, we’re at the early stages answering that question, and that’s why the Web 2.0 thing doesn’t really work for me. I think we’re at the beginning of the journey which is going to take five or six years after which they way that people think about the Web and communication and interaction and collaboration in the community will be wildly different.
APC: So looking at what potentially will be the platform or platforms that drive this brave new world, what's Microsoft’s opinion on that?
MP (laughing): Well, obviously we’d like to be the platform supplier!
I think that there are going to be a number of different elements to the platform and clearly we feel that we'd like to supply a number of those elements. Absolutely.
APC: But obviously Microsoft can’t sit back and say, “OK, let’s see where this is going to go” and then jump in later. Things are moving so fast that in order to be involved at that late stage, you have to be involved right now. So what is it that you’re doing now to be a part of it?
MP: Well, at the moment it’s all about the Live stuff that we have out there. I don’t think it’s possible to have a grand plan and say “This is what things are going to be like.” I’d love it if it was true, of course.
The concept that somebody at Microsoft has this grand plan - it doesn’t work like that in practise and I don’t think life works like that either. What we have to do is try a lot of different things and that’s what Web 2.0 is about, to a certain extent. People are trying things and some of them work and some of them don’t, and we have to do the same thing.
So what you’re seeing at the moment under the Live banner, which is a brand rather than a product, is us putting out all sorts of different products, platforms, ideas, applications and so on and so forth. Some of those will pick up, some of them won’t. We learn a lot from those. We take the feedback and we refactor it and use it to improve. We’re beginning to understand roughly what the platform should look like and it's going to be very interesting. So that’s where we are. I can’t really say any more than that (laughing).APC: What do you think of the concept of cloud computing?
MP: Yes. That will be an element of it and we’re doing a lot of work.
APC: A strong element or a more extreme edge perhaps?
MP: There’s always going to be two components - a server cloud backend system and a frontend user interface. I don’t think it’s going to be all user interface – there’s always going to be some cloud element to associate with it.
Equally it’s not all going to be cloud computing, but rather a mix between the two. I think that anybody who only talks about the extremes is incorrect. That implies that in order to have a full product suite, you have to have a big backend service and we accept that.
We’re building a lot of those big backend cloud-centric mechanisms at the moment - a huge data centre out in the potato fields in western Washington at a place called Quincy. I can’t remember exactly but it’s many millions of square feet and basically it’s just a big server farm. It has a huge number of fans to keep it cool and the reason it’s where it is, is because it’s next to the Grand Coulee Dam because it uses that much power. You have to have it next to the hydroelectric dam – these server farms need the cheapest electricity possible to be viable.
The economics of those big cloud things are quite interesting because it all comes down to running cost – and the running cost is the cost of the electricity. And interestingly enough, we have a plant there, Google has a plant just downstream and Yahoo has a plant just upstream. It’s really is a question of scale - if you’re getting into big cloud databases, then it’s “Who can have the biggest one?” because it’s economies of scale. The bigger you make the plant, the cheaper it is to run.APC: What about Web 2.0 concepts in enterprise?
MP: Yes, that’s really interesting. Again a lot of activity is going on. You’re familiar with the Long Tail effect – Chris Anderson’s book – about how people are starting to be able to do things in business they’ve never been able to do before because of the Web: taking large numbers of small edge-type transactions and putting them together and making a business, for example, which is what Amazon does. I think in Web business we started off just using it to promote products, then we started to do electronic business, and now we’re starting to see a use for marketing. The marketing industry has been pretty well revolutionised by viral marketing. Going forwards, we’re going to see business impacting in a lot of other ways. For instance, the basic business model of putting a product up on the Web and having people go and buy it has an inherent problem, because somebody else can go and put the same product alongside you - how do you differentiate yourself?
Funnily enough, I was watching the TV this morning up and there was a company where you get DVDs through the post - Netflix. Now, the interesting thing about that business concept is there's no real barrier to entry. If you think about it, you can just go and buy a whole lot of DVDs and envelopes, people rent them online and you ship to them. So very quickly it becomes a question of who’s the cheapest supplier?
So there’s no stickiness in that sort of business. Typically people will go to a business because it’s local, so geography provides stickiness. When you’re on the Web, there’s no such thing as geography, and therefore it’s down to who’s the cheapest provider.
This is why Amazon, in my opinion, has had a lot of struggle because if a book is cheaper on another site there's no reason to stick with Amazon - there's no real brand loyalty. Businesses have really been struggling with that but what we’re now seeing businesses doing is differentiating themselves by providing a community aspect.
So if you go on to Amazon now, there are lists and reviews. You can read reviews about products and they’re building a whole community around this concept, because people are attracted by the idea of a business which encourages human interaction and communication.
There's a company called Last FM, which is a UK company and what they do is monitor what you and everyone else was listening to, and then started to make recommendations based on similar interests - matching people with other products which might suit their tastes. A lot of online stores are doing that now, and it's a very successful practise - it's really powerful. If you’re interested in music, are you going to go to a site which just gives you music or are you going to go to a site which gives you music but actually says, “By the way, you might be interested in these other songs as well. By the way, this guy over here has actually got exactly the same taste in music as you have, do you want to talk to him? Have you heard the latest music?”
So it immediately starts to get a community aspect. Then you will keep going back to that site. And even if you just go to those sites to research purchases before buying them somewhere cheaper, you're still going to that site, and they make money off your hits through advertising.APC: Yes, although it does hit a point where you don’t always go to the cheapest site. I’ve found now that I don’t buy something from a site simply because it’s the cheapest, but I will go back to a site that has dealt with me in the past that is relatively cheap. I could perhaps do better but I know I’d be taking a risk on support and delivery. I’ll go to a site that’s proven itself.
MP: And to a certain extent, they’ll do is interweave into the community. At the moment there's two elements - purchasing and community. Very soon you’ll be able to click on a recommended product and you’ll be able to buy it instantly. At that point, clearly they’re never going to be able to charge a huge mark up but they will be able to charge some sort of mark up and that’s really all any business wants. When that happens you get a much more complex purchasing cycle, and we're seeing that now. You start off with an idea, you go and build it and you market it, you sell it and then you go into support.
But there’s also a product use cycle. You know, you can buy the product, you work out how to install it - you go round in a big circle. What we’re seeing is those two things being folded together and so people are now coming up with new ideas of using a product. They’re saying on the Web, “By the way, you know you can use this product in this way”. They’re helping other people on how to use it. The classic example is opensource. When you think about it, opensource products get all their support for free. We would love that.
APC: It’s often very hard to find, though.
MP: It is a bit hard to find but we would love to be able to have a community which supported our products because we could get rid of all of our product support costs! It would be great! In fact, the weird thing is if you don’t give support yourself, you can actually end up with a better level of support by having community support.