Web 2.0: What it is and what it means for your organisation

Tools that make the collaborative web work

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The web's business and technology elite convened for O'Reilly and Associates' third annual Web 2.0 conference in San Francisco's Palace Hotel last week. Started in 2004, the meeting lends its name to what some call a movement and others an ignorable wave of marketing hype.

What is Web 2.0? The concept is notoriously fluid and easy to apply to whatever topic, site or idea the speaker wants to show off. Tim O'Reilly's own definition includes a three-colour diagram with 20-odd boxes and lines. The easiest definition, however, is simply the group of new websites that have grown after the dotcom crash at the turn of the millennium. The most interesting and important of these show four key properties: an emphasis on social software, exposing useful web services, a culture of openness and a rich browser interface.


Is Web 2.0 relevant for open source developers, users, and IT managers? Although it may seem like just so much marketing fluff, Web 2.0 does have meaning for open source creators and users as well as IT decision-makers.

Opensourciness

Web 2.0 sites exhibits what could be called "Opensourciness". Some of the most successful sites, like del.icio.us and digg.com, are an outgrowth of open source culture. Most sites began as personal projects to "scratch an itch" for developers and friends, or as small start-ups run on tight budgets. This has engendered a close interaction between developer and audience, and a consequent “release early, release often” responsiveness in the development of new features.

The start-up culture of Web 2.0, with more restricted post-crash budgets, has led to an even more pronounced dependence on open source software – either a Linux Apache MySQL PHP/Perl/Python (LAMP) stack or increasingly popular alternatives including Lighttpd and Ruby – than in the pre-crash web. More importantly, as Web 2.0 sites have grown up into serious businesses, few have migrated away from the rapid development high-level languages to "serious" development platforms.

Web 2.0 sites like the photo-sharing service Flickr encourage hacking of third-party tools, providing APIs and open-format data for plug-ins, extensions and other experimentation by users. Some companies are even encouraging a purely API-based system, such as Amazon's interesting pay-to-play web services. Some sites, such as WordPad, LiveJournal, and Wikipedia release their software under a free licence, encouraging the kind of improvements that feed back into their core sites.

One of the most notable features of many Web 2.0 sites, is the emergence of Asynchronous JavaScript and XML (AJAX) interfaces – JavaScript-based dynamic sites that modify HTML and use micro-requests to the server. Most Web 2.0 sites incorporate some AJAX interactivity. Some, such as meebo.com, make it the core of their interface.

While JavaScript interfaces were once anathema, their re-emergence is directly attributable to the rise of Mozilla and Firefox, and to a lesser extent Konqueror and Safari, and the consequent viability of standards-based web development. Thanks to these open source browsers, web developers have been able to depend on richer interaction in their browser interfaces.

Most importantly, many Web 2.0 sites extend open source values into non-programmatic objects: images, video, text. Many, but by no means all, Web 2.0 sites support an open management culture, such as the one defined by Jonathan Nolen's Open Company Test.

The Creative Commons , released in 2001, has been used extensively in blogging services such as Blogger and photo-sharing services such as Flickr. Although many sites support a "spectrum" of licences – from the most restrictive to the most liberal, and everything in between – large content wikis such as Wikipedia make all their text and images available under free licences. Together these services are making a huge corpus of work available for free use.

Awareness in the free and open community

Why should open source users and developers keep an eye on Web 2.0? Most directly, Web 2.0 cranks up the demands on open source software. Development challenges on the LAMP stack are higher than ever before, as Web 2.0 sites require flexibility for payloads ranging from frequent and tiny AJAX requests to multi-megabyte video and audio streams. Lean, efficient and powerful server tools, including Lighttpd and Ruby on Rails, are drawing away developers from the LAMP stack.

On the client side, free desktops that incorporate web services and web API clients will have a growing importance for users. And Web 2.0 sites push free browsers to handle more than HTML and a handful of image formats and fulfil their promise as desktop platform in their own right.

There are also lessons to be learned from the rise of Web 2.0. The scaling of web communities to thousands or even hundreds of thousands of users suggests that there is more that open source development teams can do to reach out to their users. Many FLOSS (free/libre/open source software) teams are increasingly using Web 2.0 tools – blogs, wikis, social software, even video sharing and podcasting – to close the gap between developer and user.

Technically, Web 2.0 sites have proved the viability of the browser as a platform for rich, non-trivial user interfaces. The AJAX techniques used by the most visible Web 2.0 sites are slowly finding a place in open source applications, sometimes based on JavaScript libraries such as Dojo and Mochikit – we can expect more in the year to come. On the server end, Web 2.0 has also given a push to HTTP-based remote APIs like Simple Object Access Protocol, XML-RPC, and techniques like REST.

Web 2.0 sites are also providing alternative business models for commercial open source development. Web services based on providing a web interface to open source software, such as WordPad and Wikia, have been able to contribute to the FLOSS common store but continue to compete on the strength of their content, community and "hard" resources, including hardware and bandwidth.

IT managers and other open source deployment specialists will need to think hard about Web 2.0's increased requirements for their networks. Richer media types may require expanded bandwidth capacity, as well as browser upgrades or changes on the desktop.

Employees used to social software technologies such as blogs, wikis and social networking at home may come to expect their availability inside the firewall. That culture of openness may extend beyond organisational boundaries to customers, partners and even competitors. On the development front, internal applications may increasingly be built around HTTP-based API architectures, with AJAX as a user interface platform replacing custom desktop tools.

But the future of Web 2.0 is not uniformly rosy. There are still some important outstanding questions that make open source users uneasy. Many Web 2.0 sites depend heavily on closed data formats such as Macromedia Flash. Some sites, such as Flickr, degrade gracefully to AJAX, and others, including MySpace And YouTube, do not, and are essentially inaccessible to free software users.

Evan Prodromou writes for LinuxWorld (US)

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