What You Need to Know About Web 2.0

You may have heard the term “Web 2.0” used a lot lately &#151 even on this Web site &#151 and wondered whether Al Gore’s been tinkering with the Internet again. Fear not, he’s left Silicon Valley and Washington behind to shake things up in Hollywood.

Web 2.0 is the name given to a collection of trends that are changing how we all work with the Web, whether as consumers, software developers or business owners. Trends &#151 not technologies &#151 define Web 2.0, because the technologies that underlie this next-generation Web have been around for quite some time. It’s the innovations that have sprung from the ubiquity of the Web that are new.

Brought about by the growing community of Web-connected people, the spread of broadband access, common protocols, and most of all, our experience with the first generation of Web technologies, we’ve learned new things the Web can do, and those new things &#151 taken together &#151 define Web 2.0.

Web 2.0 is a big, broad term that may mean different things to different people, but there are two big ideas behind it. The first is the notion of running software applications on the Web itself instead of on the desktop, as we have since the dawn of the PC. This is a new way of looking at the Web, not as a collection of destination sites, but as a set of sources, both of data and of functionality, that can all be strung together to create the applications we need.

The second really big idea is that of participation, of people making these Web applications more useful even as they work with them. That usually means contributing their own knowledge, by sharing some of the data they manipulate through these applications.

I won’t go any further in describing the term, nor go into all of the ideas that fit the Web 2.0 mold. You may as well get that directly from Tim O’Reilly, who popularized the idea. Instead, lets ground this discussion by calling out some of the Web 2.0 trends that will, or already do, impact the way you use business software.

AJAX, Mashups and More
When the Web was a network of more-or-less static sites, clicking links and jumping from page to page was a reasonable thing to do. But, as we’ve all known since we first tried to buy something from Amazon over a dial-up Internet connection, having to wait for a whole page to refresh every time you click a button is no way to run an interactive Web application.

AJAX is a group of related technologies that allows developers to build much more responsive browser-based applications. AJAX applications can change individual elements on a page rather than loading a new page to reflect a change in content. These applications (e.g., GMail) are therefore more interactive, more dynamic and act more like desktop software.

Web services behind such applications provide developers with a way to reach the data and the core services from useful sites like eBay and Amazon, without being bound by the presentation formats of these sites.

We’ve been hearing about Web services for years, but part of the Web 2.0 phenomenon is that richer Web applications have finally provided a place to put these services to good use. Web services have opened up access to data from a variety of sources, allowing developers to create new applications that integrate data from across the Web.

Web applications that combine data from several sites in innovative ways are called mashups, such as HousingMaps. Mashups illustrate how content can be re-mixed in an informal or even ad-hoc way to serve small user communities.

There’s a social side to Web 2.0 that includes cooperative tagging, Wikis, and blogs. One of the side effects of the rise of blogs has been the popularization of RSS (Really Simple Syndication), a common format for Website syndication. RSS allows browsers or RSS aggregators to “subscribe” to feeds and to provide up-to-date content to the user, another capability absent from the first-generation Web.

Small Business on Web 2.0
Making use of Web 2.0 means, first, considering the Web as the place to run your business applications. From a practical point of view, that means one of two things: either running Web-based software hosted off site through a software-as-a-service (SaaS) model, or hosting the Web-based software on your own servers.

Web-based applications have some advantages over server or desktop software &#151 you can access and run the app from any Internet-connected computer. Web applications can bring in remote users without running into problems at the firewall and enable database access from client sites. They let people in different locations see a consistent set of data and eliminate issues of data synchronization on laptops. They can also be deployed and updated easily, which can relieve small business owners of the cost and complexity of IT management.

These are all functions of plain old Web 1.0, of course, but interactive, AJAX-based applications combined with easy access to high-speed connections makes a Web-based application scenario much more inviting than it was a few years back.

Web 2.0 impacts the small business software picture in other ways as well. A new generation of Web applications that use AJAX and common XML formats also focus on the Web values of collaboration and syndication. These include, among others, e-mail and calendaring application Zimbra, online editor Writely (recently acquired by Google) and calendar 30boxes.

The Desktop Meets Web 2.0
Traditional desktop productivity software is still king, and it’s likely to remain so for some time&#151there’s too much infrastructure and too much knowledge invested in traditional software to expect Web applications to become the dominant model any time soon. But because they provide so much value, some of the new tricks we’ve learned with Web 2.0 are finding their way into desktop software.

FileMaker Inc.’s recently released FileMaker Pro 8.5 includes a Web Viewer control that lets you create Internet mashups inside a familiar desktop application. The Web Viewer shows the contents of Web pages linked through a URL, and fields in the database record can drive the URL. Some examples of where this might be immediately useful include linking package tracking numbers to FedEx’s Web site or addresses to Google Maps.

“The traditional Web mashup involves a programmer using JavaScript and XML,” says Ryan Rosenberg, FileMaker’s vice president of marketing. FileMaker makes the technology more accessible to small business, where such expertise is hard to find, by providing an easy way to bring together data from different Web sources. The Web Viewer also makes it possible to place links to up-to-date information in the database, rather than making static copies that go stale quickly, points out Rosenberg.

Web 2.0 applications have collaboration and data from the Web on their side, but desktop applications have strengths, too. Chief among these are an operating environment and a user interface built for single-person interaction and a rich feature set based on many years of development. So the challenge for desktop applications, says Rosenberg, is to “Take a desktop productivity app, with all of its power and depth, and combine it with the real-time, easy nature of the Web.”

Walking the Walk
Jonathan Romero is the IT manager at Orlando-based Raydiance, a medical laser research company. Raydiance has fewer than 50 employees, and about a quarter of them work remotely.

“We have a pretty de-centralized setup,” says Romero. “We have a lot of people who work remotely and need to share calendars with each other.” Raydiance relies on the Web 2.0 Zimbra Collaboration Suite, which it runs on its own server, for e-mail and for sharing calendars.

Romero is impressed with Zimbra and the capabilities it provides, but he takes a pragmatic approach to applying the trends of Web 2.0. Besides Zimbra, says Romero, “the most exotic things we’ve run here have been wikis.”

A number of Raydiance’s employees use Zimbra e-mail through Outlook using Zimbra’s Outlook plugin, rather than through a browser. That Zimbra provides such a plug-in demonstrates another way in which Web 2.0 can work with familiar software.

Employees have had to sometimes make adjustments. “Tagging messages is something that’s been kind of hard to introduce to people,” says Romero. But experience with GMail helped to serve as an introduction to Web 2.0 software. Romero himself was pleased to find that GMail’s conversation view is also a feature Zimbra offers.

For Romero, open standards are an important part of the overall strategy. “Small businesses that are willing to aggressively research things that they can do with standards based, Web 2.0 stuff, are going to be real winners once they start scaling up,” says Romero.

When Raydiance deployed Zimbra, running it on site was the only option. Now, a number of hosting services allow SMBs to sign on to use Zimbra as a hosted application. Romero sees this as a positive step. “It’s only getting better, to where people can pay monthly fees for a service, as opposed to having to run their own infrastructure,” he says.

Steve Apiki is a freelance writer and software developer who works for a small business in Peterborough, New Hampshire. He’s been a contributing editor to BYTE and to FamilyPC.

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