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Ed YourdonWeb 2.0

by Ed Yourdon

September 2007


The term “Web 2.0” was introduced in 2004 by the Tim O’Reilly (see http://radar.oreilly.com/archives/2005/10/web_20_compact_definition.html).

The term “Web 2.0” was introduced in 2004 by the Tim O’Reilly (see http://radar.oreilly.com/archives/2005/10/web_20_compact_definition.html). We can summarize it as follows: Web 2.0 is a combination of technologies, business practices, and social trends that facilitate the individual creation, control, and sharing of content on the Internet. Several other descriptions are available, including one from the Pew Report (at www.pewinternet.org/PPF/r/189/report_display.asp) and an intriguing You-Tube video-clip presentation (at www.youtube.com/watch?v=6gmP4nk0EOE). Indeed, YouTube itself is a prominent example of Web 2.0, with over 100 million downloads a day of videos that are created and uploaded primarily by individuals.Individuals creating and publishing their own materials on the Internet sounds rather harmless; and many people associate the concept with “social networking” sites like MySpace, where lonely teenagers spend countless hours posting trivial details about their daily life. But as Web 2.0 enters the mainstream business environment, and the broader social community, its impact will be far greater – and also far more controversial – than the first wave of Internet/Web technology (identified now as “Web 1.0”) ever was.


Web 2.0 is not a simple “all-or-nothing” concept; but there are some common themes that you’ll hear in any discussion of Web 2.0. The most important theme is that of “bottom-up”, individual control of material that is placed on the Internet, in contrast to the traditional top-down, hierarchically-controlled “publishing” mechanism that prevailed with Web 1.0. This is not only a departure, but often an outright attack, upon traditional business, political, and social structures, in which managers, political leaders, and authority figures decided what information would be published, and to which lower-echelon employees, and members of the public it would be distributed.A good example of this phenomenon is the online, free encyclopedia known as Wikipedia, as compared to traditional encyclopedias such as Encyclopedia Britannica. Not only is the English-language version of Wikipedia nearly 20 times larger than Britannica (1.78 million Wikipedia articles, compared to roughly 100,000 in Britannica), and not only is it available in nearly 100 languages (the Italian version, located at http://it.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pagina_principale, is one of two dozen languages that contain over 100,000 articles), but there is a far more important aspect: nobody is in charge of Wikipedia.Thus, while traditional encyclopedias like Britannica have formal editorial policies to control the creation and editing of articles by “experts” in various fields, Wikipedia has a fundamentally different approach: anyone on earth can create a new article, or modify an existing article, without prior permission. If anyone had proposed such an approach ten years ago, it would have been dismissed as ludicrous. Yet it works, and works well: not only have recent comparisons indicated that its accuracy is nearly the same as formal encyclopedias like Britannica, but the average time for someone (anyone, anywhere on earth) to spot an erroneous entry on Wikipedia, and fix it, is four minutes.Wikipedia is also an example of another Web 2.0 theme: peer-to-peer collaboration on projects of mutual interest. While a Wikipedia article can be written by a single individual, most of the “significant” articles are collaborative efforts of numerous individuals who may not even know each other, and may never have met each other. It is remarkable to see how these collaborative efforts create detailed, comprehensive coverage of large-scale disasters (e.g., the Katrina hurricane) within a few hours of their occurrence. For a recent example, see the Wikipedia article about the April 2007 Virginia Tech massacre (located at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Virginia_Tech_massacre).What Wikipedia has accomplished on a social level, some companies are beginning to do on a business level – i.e., using wikis to support peer-to-peer collaborative efforts on various projects. Doing this with members of the project team is not very controversial; but more adventurous companies are also inviting participation and collaboration “outside the firewall” – e.g., collaboration involving retired employees, alumni (former employees), customers, and even members of the general public.


The most fundamental technology required by Web 2.0 products and services is widely-available, high-speed access to the Internet. This was generally not available a decade ago; but in most advanced countries today, as well as many developing nations, broadband access to the Internet is widely available in offices, at home, in schools, and on mobile platforms such as cell phones. But it is not yet universal: a billion PC’s, and two billion cell phones, are impressive numbers, but they still represent only a minority of citizens on the planet.Aside from high-speed Internet access, many Web 2.0 products use a combination of asynchronous Javascript and XML known as AJAX; familiar technologies such as RSS, and new development environments such as Ruby on Rails are also commonly used.With these technologies, vendors are now offering Web 2.0 products and services that operate directly off the Web itself, rather than via a laptop or desktop computer. Google is probably the best-known vendor of such an approach, with its “Google Apps” providing simple-but-adequate word-processing, spreadsheet, and presentation capabilities that compete with traditional PC-based products like Microsoft Office. What makes Google Apps an exemplar of Web 2.0 is not just that it’s free, or that it operates directly on the Web, but also that it supports and encourages collaboration among many users of a shared document, spreadsheet, or presentation.


Business organizations can use AJAX and other technologies to provide faster, more interactive, and more user-friendly products and services to their Internet-equipped customers; and if they don’t do so, there is an increasing likelihood that their competitors will.They also have the opportunity to use blogs, wikis, and other tools to encourage collaboration between members of a project team, or between individuals throughout an entire department – or, ultimately, among all employees within an organization.But many traditional companies balk at extending such collaboration beyond the organizational firewall. They don’t want employees writing blogs that can be read by customers and members of the general public – even though companies like IBM, Intel, and Microsoft (and many others) are demonstrating that it can be beneficial if properly managed (Microsoft, for example, has three thousand blogs). And while many companies are still using the Internet in a Web 1.0-style manner to “push” information outward to customers, they are slow to embrace the idea of allowing customers (along with former employees, and retired employees) to send information inward to collaborate and communicate with existing employees.


Conservative organizations, as well as middle-aged managers and other individuals, may continue to resist the bottom-up, collaborative nature of Web 2.0. But the younger generation of workers, students, and citizens has already embraced it; and smaller, newer organizations are using such approaches to compete effectively against larger, better-financed competitors.Technology has now become so inexpensive and so ubiquitous that traditional organizations and governments have effectively lost control. Governments can block Internet access, or shut down services they consider unacceptable, such as Google and YouTube; but this will be only a short-term obstacle. Companies can prohibit blogging, and attempt to control the way their employees access the Internet; but most employees have their own computers at home, and they have personal cellphones that allow them to collaborate with their peers, via the Internet, wherever they are located. And younger employees are not only more familiar and comfortable with these technologies than their middle-aged parents and managers, they’re also more willing to use the technology to circumvent the traditional, hierarchical controls imposed upon them.This trend will continue for at least the next decade, because the trend of computer hardware technology improvements is likely to continue for at least that long. Moore’s Law – which says that computer hardware will double in power and capability every 18 months – has been true since the late 1960s, and will continue well into the next decade. Thus, today’s ambitious “One Laptop Per Child” project (see www.laptop.org for details) that seeks to provide millions of children in developing nations with $100 laptops will soon seem primitive: today’s $100 laptop will become a $1 laptop within a decade.Within a decade, we will have moved beyond Web 2.0; we may be talking about Web 3.0, or perhaps something even beyond that. But it will definitely be a world where virtually everyone has access to technology, and can determine – for themselves – how they want to use it to communicate, cooperate, and collaborate with every other member of the human race.