In the second segment of a two-part interview, technology guru Tim O'Reilly talks Web 2.0 and mash-ups with the BBC World Service programme Go Digital.
Bill Thompson: You talk a lot about Web 2.0. So what does Web 2.0 mean then?
Tim O'Reilly: We started thinking a lot about the fact that, first of all, a lot of people after the dotcom bust thought that the web it was just a bubble. But there's actually a lot of study of history that shows that bubbles happen with every technological revolution.
Access to information is radically different than 10 years ago
In fact there's a wonderful book called Technological Revolutions and Financial Capital that traces the history of virtually every bubble. It turns out that steel mills had a bubble; railroads had a bubble; canals had a bubble. Virtually every real breakthrough in technology had a bubble which burst, left a lot of people broke who'd invested in it but also left the infrastructure for this next golden age.
Bill: All the venture capitalists from 1999 paid billions to build the network and put in the routers and the servers. They're still there and we've been using them happily for the past five years.
Tim: That's right. So we started asking ourselves well first of all there were some companies that survived the bubble and what did they have in common? And secondly, were there new companies that were coming up, learning these same things?
And one of the things that I came up with was the idea - and this is really the heart of what we're now calling Web 2.0 - the idea that in Web 1.0, people thought it was all about publishing - it was this new publishing medium where we push out this content to consumers. So people like AOL or even Yahoo got this idea, we're a portal, we just put together all this content and people will consume it.
Bill: Like the BBC possibly as well then?
Tim: Quite possibly. But instead the companies that really succeeded, figured out how to build an environment where individuals could participate. And it's not always obvious what the nature of that participation is.
But take Google, for example, those who follow the search industry realised that the breakthrough that made Google the search king was something called Page Rank.
And Page Rank was the idea that rather than looking at the characteristics of documents, which is what every other search engine had done, Google realised that what you needed to look at was what people thought about them as expressed by the links on the web.
Page Rank was basically saying, wow, lots of people are linked to this document, it must be valuable and so they would put that information together with the content of the document. So effectively Google figured out how to harness the distributed intelligence of the net to give better search results.
That was sort of an insight about participation. And then you think about someone like Amazon and we look at Amazon and say, why did they get better than all of the other bookstores online. There were lots and lots of online bookstores and there were big chains that said well we have the advantage, we're the brand name in this space and they got left in the dust. And the reason is that Amazon worked much harder to harness their users, to annotate the content.
Bill: User reviews of the books and so on.
Tim: User reviews certainly but more than that, they also use the information that users give them to produce their search results.
Bill: Recommendations - people like you like this sort of stuff. It really works because they have this information.
Tim: There are actually tens of millions of contributions to Amazon so you can think in some ways of Amazon as if it were a giant open source project.
Bill: And is the whole idea between Web 2.0, compared to Web 1.0 that we've all got used to using?
Tim: Well, first off it's this idea that users add value and so it's really any site that harnesses collective intelligence in some way.
So clearly I'd say that the really big winners, Yahoo being a bit of an exception, but certainly eBay, Amazon, Google, all demonstrate that in spades. But even Yahoo, it's a directory of user generated content. But then you look at new sites, like Flickr, this fabulous photo-sharing service.
They've done a tremendous job, first of all of getting all the users to contribute their data, share their data, but also they've syndicated it out to other sites and so you'll see images from Flickr showing up all over the net because they made it really easy using programming web services APIs for people to draw their data out of the site.
Bill: Like a major source photo library I guess?
Tim: That's right. What you're think of as Web 2.0 is starting to be a fabric across sites that are co-operating. The first stage is this idea of individual sites that harness collective intelligence.
Mash it up
The next is how do these sites start to weave together into something larger? Now a great example of this breakthrough really happened with this new Google maps program. Google maps was kind of a reinvention of the online maps and direction site using a much richer user interface so that it acts more like a desktop application - you can interact with it.
But it also had an unexpected characteristic - that it was easy to get the data out of it because of the way it was implemented. So hackers, once again, our friends, proceeded to build new services.
The first of these was a site called housingmaps.com, which actually puts together Google maps with a site called CraigsList which is very popular in the US. It is a sort of classified listing site. This allows you, for example, to go find, if you're looking to rent or buy a house and actually you can look at them all on a map.
There's little push pins and you click on one and up pops a picture of the house and the price. It's a whole new application that's built by taking data from these two cooperating sites.
This whole idea of mash-ups is sort of a central Web 2.0 idea. The idea that can build services - you can build new sites by pulling things from one site or another and blogging is another piece of this and its associated technology RSS, which is a syndication technology, whereby you can post something to your site and then you can send it out to subscribers.
Bill: And podcasting as well.
Tim: That's right, podcasting - again we're getting into rich media. So there are all these things but what they all have in common to me is that we're starting to weave this participation fabric through the web.
It used to be that the web was about publishing. Now it is about participation and the sites that have figured out how to use participation and extend the ways in which they use participation are actually becoming more and more successful.
Bill: What are your thoughts for future then? We're seeing all this happening already but most people listening are going to be thinking, how is this going to affect my life?
Tim: I think that we're increasingly going to see, first of all, the web will become just an invisible part of our everyday lives. Access to information is already, at least for the net connected, radically different than it was a decade ago. I think of certain kinds of movies I'll go to and I'll say; "Wow, I wonder how much of that was true", and then I'll immediately start Googling for answers. You can find out about daily events. So there's access to information at a profoundly different level and I think we just take that for granted.
Bill Thompson is a regular commentator on the BBC World Service programme Go Digital