Web 2.0 is being mis-sold

I’m not sure if its a good thing, but recently, I began to read more computing magazines. Many years back, when I was learning my trade, I used to read PC Plus but since then I’ve avoided the publications found in your average WH Smith because I found them to be far too consumer-focused and I consider that much of the advice given is far to simplistic and only tells half the story.

Recently, I’ve found that whilst reading trade publications such as IT Week will give me what I need to know from an industry perspective, I’m using more and more of the consumer-focused functionality built into the software on my PCs. I’ve also been relearning my trade as I try to become familiar with two non-Microsoft operating systems (SUSE Linux and Apple OS X) whilst rekindling my lost knowledge of PC hardware, so once again I have been reading the magazines that I shunned for so long. The trouble is, with their £6 cover prices (to justify the accompanying DVD which rarely has anything I want on it (or that I can’t download for free on the ‘net), I only really want to buy one a month and it seems to be difficult to get all I want from a single publication.

I did read Linux Format for a few months, but soon got tired of the Microsoft-bashing that took place (often from journalists who either run Windows under duress to work around a specific issue or never run Windows and associated applications because they can get all they need from an open source platform). I don’t believe that everything Microsoft does is good (far from it), but I do get annoyed when I see someone slating a perfectly good product because it was written by Microsoft and therefore it must be “evil”. Recently, my purchase of a Mac has led me to buy Mac Format and iCreate but by far and away the best general (cross-platform) PC magazine that I’ve found has been Personal Computer World.

One of the advantages of PCW is that it’s published by VNU business publications, so many of the writers are also contributors to the same trade publications that I respect already. I also like PCW because it has a mixture of hardware and software articles, just the right amount of advertising, and covers developments for all PC operating systems (although there is a slight bias towards Windows, representing its market position and therefore the largest chunk of the magazine’s readership); however, I still get annoyed by half-correct advice (often edited to save space, losing its full meaning in the process) and articles that have jumped on one bandwagon or another and seem to have lost the plot on the way. One of these was an article on Web 2.0 technologies in the July 2006 edition of PCW.

Web 2.0 is the current buzzword used to describe web services (rich websites that provide a service, that is consumed either by another application, or directly by a user via a web browser). I first came across the concept back in 2001 when Microsoft announced their .NET vision at a TechEd conference but others have extended the web services vision to include LAMP (Linux-Apache-MySQL-Perl/PHP/Python) applications and other platforms, in the process generating much media hype about the next Internet.

And that’s exactly my point. It’s all hype. There is no new Internet. Sir Tim Berners-Lee invented the world-wide web and browser-based applications have become widespread. Now that same platform is being used to develop new, rich, server-based applications and people are heralding a new dawn (or even worse, building up for a second .com frenzy). What has become known as Web 2.0 is not the next web, it’s simply a development of the vision that Berners-Lee had 15 years back, but now we’re all ready to use it (back in the early 1990s many business applications were character based and ran on an expensive server, whilst PC users were only just getting used toward processing and a GUI interface – we were only just getting used to the move from standalone PCs to LANs and would have struggled with the concept of massively connected systems at providing and consuming services from one another).

In fairness, Tim O’Reilly’s description of Web 2.0 is an interesting and thought-provoking article which I agree with in many ways but for every O’Reilly article there are a bunch of journalists who herald Web 2.0 as the “webtop”, replacing the desktop and even suggesting that Windows Vista will be the last edition of Windows. Whilst I have no doubt that Web 2.0 services will win the hearts and minds of consumers (hence why Microsoft is developing the Windows Live platform to complete with the giant of web services – Google) we are not about to see the death of the PC, to be replaced by a “dumb” browser terminal (anybody remember how thin clients were going to displace rich applications on the desktop?). Why not? Read on and I’ll explain why not.

Web services are a great idea, joining islands of information to enhance the Internet experience. We’ve already seem the development from static information pages to transactional data and web services take this to the next level; but despite the altruistic intentions of many Web 2.0 companies they also have to represent a viable business proposition. That means driving a revenue stream and (eventually) making a profit. If the venture capital that finances the web service (which is hemorrhaging cash until it gains sufficient presence to establish a revenue stream) dries up, where does my data go? I’m pretty sure it won’t find its way back to me but it may well end up at the next clearance sale of used IT equipment. My personal data may not be significant but if it was to fall into the wrong hands, it may include information that allows someone to steal my digital identity. Potentially worse, if one or more small businesses rely on the failed web service to operate, what happens to their data (and their business)?

I like my data to live on my computers – where I control it. Sure, maybe I’m a control freak, but I’m not alone in this view. I might put a few digital photos up on Flickr but I keep the originals where I know they are safe. I may trust my ISP to host a website for me, but I have an offline copy too. I don’t use my Google Mail account because I don’t want Google using my data to build a profile of my interests. And, if I fail to take backups, then I only have one person to blame when I lose my data.

Those are just a few examples from a tech-savvy consumer point of view but what about the corporate or government environment? You might accept that your bank, local council, and major government departments outsource their IT operations to an IT services company (they almost certainly do) but they will also make sure the necessary controls are in place. Their website might include functionality consumed from a web services provider but I wouldn’t expect confidential documents to be edited using Writely (the online word processor, now owned by Google), or financial data to be controlled using the Google Spreadsheets, any more than I would expect a business associate to contact me using a Hotmail e-mail address. Corporate and government organisations may consume some web services and will almost certainly provide more but they will not turn their internal operations over to the webtop.

Web 2.0 supporters claim that because all applications run in a browser then there will be less application support issues. Hmm. What does the browser run on? Yes, a lightweight operating system could well be developed to support just a browser but haven’t we all experienced buggy websites using dodgy scripting?

As long as corporates still use PCs as we know them today, there will be a market for Microsoft to sell Windows and Office for the desktop, along with supporting server infrastructure and application development platforms (including .NET – which is, after all, Microsoft’s vision for web services). Web 2.0’s webtop may well be on its way up, but it’s certainly not a replacement for the desktop.

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