Musings on Business and Tech

Category — context

The Next Phase is Not Web 3.0

O’Reilly Media’s Web 2.0 Summit, which took place over the last few days in San Francisco, got me thinking, why is the web still only in version 2.0?

Tim O’Reilly himself coined the phrase Web 2.0 back in 2004 for his first conference of the same name. It was defined by an evolution in front end technologies like AJAX and bubble letters, back-end technologies like web services and RSS feeds, and business models like crowdsourcing and software as a service.

So given that we’re 6 years in to Web 2.0, when will we get to Web 3.0? The answer is never. No one will ever start calling it Web 3.0. For one thing, it’s not catchy. Web 2.0 has a certain ring to it that Web 3.0 doesn’t. Also, I think it will be difficult for people to come to a consensus on when technologies have evolved enough to move to a new version number. Web 2.0 was coined by a single person. Web 3.0 would have to be more organic. We much more likely to describe future “versions” of the web in descriptive phrases rather than numbers.

Tim Berners-Lee has always been against this nomenclature anyway. His alternative to “Web 2.0″ was the “Read/Write Web,” because of the way in which users became empowered to contribute en masse to the data on the internet. And in 2006, when asked what Web 3.0 would be, he said that a component of it would be “The Semantic Web,” or “a web of data that can be processed directly and indirectly by machines.” In other words, a web in which the machines can glean meaning from the data, in addition to simply manipulating it.

But I would argue that we are already at the next evolution of the web, and yet it’s not about semantics. It’s about context. This new phase of the web has largely been catalyzed by two breakthroughs: advances in the power and reach of mobile computing, as well as what Mark Zuckerberg calls “the social graph.” Both of these lend not meaning but context to data, and that is a very powerful thing.

Mobile devices can contextualize data around locations, photos, video, and audio (among other things). And of course the social graph connects data to people. The “Internet of Things,” as it continues to grow, will increasingly connect data to objects (shall we call it the “object graph?”). Although context is a step in the direction of semantics, we are still a ways away from getting machines to the point where they can interpret meaning from this data.

Indeed the “web” isn’t even about machines anymore. What was once a network of machines connected by wires is now a network of people, places and things connected by context. There is a new network growing atop the old.

Perhaps the semantic web will come in version 4.0 (although we still won’t call it that). But I think the best characterization of the most recent evolution of the web is the “Contextual Web” (I am not the first to call it such). Twitter, Facebook, Foursquare, the iPhone, Android, and many other prominent technologies can fall under this term, and I think it best describes the current proliferation of mobile and social technology that is spawning so many new and interesting businesses.

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November 18, 2010   2 Comments

Twitter’s Big Experiment

Last week, Twitter made a huge announcement about a feature that will fundamentally change the service when it finally goes live. Beginning sometime next quarter, the company will roll out annotations, metadata that clients can attach to tweets.

Generally we think of tweets as 140 characters or fewer, but there’s already quite a bit of metadata on every tweet, including information about the author and the geolocation of the tweet. Annotations will increase this dramatically: at the start, Twitter is saying that the total size of annotations per tweet can be up to 512 bytes (128-512 UTF-8 characters). But over time, they hope to increase that payload to 2K.

Annotations can (and will) be used in very interesting ways, basically adding semantic structure to what is now only a sentence or two. I could tweet my feelings about a movie I just saw and, in the annotations, add my rating of the movie and a link to its IMDB page. Or if I’m tweeting a link to a web page, the client could put the link in the annotations, freeing up all 140 characters for me to actually describe the link (also obviating the need for URL shorteners). The possibilities are literally endless.

And therein lies both the problem and promise of annotations. They will be almost completely open-ended. The only spec Twitter is providing is that each annotation will be a triple of namespace, key, and value. Each tweet can have one or more annotations, and each namespace can have one or more key/value pairs. Everything else will be up to the “developer community:”

Annotations are a blank slate that lend themselves to myriad divergent use cases. We want to provide open-ended utility for all the developers to innovate on top of. Some of us have initial ideas of cool potential uses cases that I’m sure we’ll start to share just to seed the conversation as we get closer to launch. Developers will experiment with annotations. Certain ideas and approaches will catch on. Certain annotations will become standards democratically because everyone agrees. Some might have diverging opinions. It’s something that we hope will grow organically and be driven by sociological and cultural forces.

This means that Twitter client developers like Seesmic and Tweetdeck (and now Twitter itself) will either have to agree upon a set of standards or be content to live within a somewhat chaotic system. This is a very bold move, one that is borne out by the “standards” that have already grown organically in the platform (like the RT, @ and # qualifiers).

But this time it’s different. When those qualifiers became standard, Twitter was a small, niche service catering to bleeding edge geeks. It wasn’t so hard to get such a small, tight community to agree on things. But now that Twitter has more than 100 million users, I’m not so sure it’ll be as easy. But it will be fun to watch.

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April 22, 2010   No Comments

What is the “Internet of Things?”

The video below, from IBM’s Smarter Planet blog, is a fascinating glimpse at what the future of the internet might look like, when interconnected things begin to outnumber interconnected people. ReadWriteWeb has also given a lot of attention of late to the Internet of Things, including a post called 8 Ways to Better Understand the Internet of Things, and startups like thingd and stickybits are aiming to exploit the current explosion in smartphone usage by reducing the friction inherent in trying to annotate the world’s “stuff.”

What does it mean when IBM talks about a “smarter planet?”

When we talk about a smarter planet, you can say that it has two dimensions. One is to be more efficient, be less destructive, to connect different aspects of life which do affect each other in more conscious and deliberate and intelligent ways. But the other is also to generate fundamentally new insights, new activity, new forms of social relations. So you could look at the planet as an information, creation and transmission system, and the universe was hearing its information but we werent. But increasingly now we can, early days, baby steps days, but we can actually begin to hear the planet talking to us.

Watch The Internet of Things.

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March 22, 2010   1 Comment

911 For the 21st Century

A couple days ago, ReadWriteWeb reported on a new Twitter hashtag syntax for people to use in emergencies, a syntax that would make it easier for computers to “automatically extract data about locations or the status of a road or person.”

For instance, a tweet requesting security at the General Hospital in Port-au-Prince might look something like this: “#haiti #need security #loc General Hospital PAP #contact @thehatian”.

So what would be really cool (and I’m sure someone will do this before too long) would be to build a mobile web app that would, with a minimum of user input, build tweets for you using this syntax. The interface would contain only a handful of really large buttons, set against a very bright background (so the phone can double as a flashlight of course). The app could use the phone’s GPS to geotag the tweet. Sending out a mobile S.O.S. would be as easy as pushing a two or three buttons.

On the other end, of course, fire, police and emergency medical departments could monitor these tweets using Twitter’s search or some other Twitter search client (perhaps one that could plot these tweets realtime on a map). They would then be much better able to get help where it’s needed the most. It’s 911 for the 21st century!

I am continually amazed by the extent to which technology continues to improve our lives in so many ways.

Read Tweak the Tweet: New Twitter Hashtag Syntax for Sharing Information During Catastrophes.

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January 21, 2010   No Comments

What is Context-Aware Computing?

Context Aware Computing. That’s the heading of one of the sections of Gartner’s recently released Top Predictions for IT Organizations and Users, 2010 and Beyond. I’d never heard this term before but apparently it’s well-studied in Computer Science. It deals with computer systems that are aware of the user’s operating environment, whether that be their location, their identity, what they’re doing, what time it is, etc.

According to Gartner analysts Nick Jones and William Clark, and I’m with them on this one, it “is about to have a transformational effect on business.” There are two technology trends that are converging to make this an enormous growth area: smartphones and cloud computing. In this same Gartner report, smartphones will overtake PCs as the primary web access device by 2013. And I think it might even happen sooner than that (I’ll go out on a limb and say latter half of 2011).

In the document, the analysts compare context awareness to search, in that it’s a keystone around which information is organized, though they say it differs from search in that it will be used to push information to users (while users pull information via search). I think this is all right on, and very exciting to watch. Now that all these sites have so much data about our habits, our networks, and now our locations, the next step is for them to deliver relevant  information to us based on contextual analysis of this data.

Read Gartner’s Top Predictions for IT Organizations and Users, 2010 and Beyond: A New Balance.

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January 14, 2010   1 Comment