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Doing Things Right


March, 2006: Doing Things Right

Software Development

March 2006

When people use the term Web 2.0, they seem to refer to three things: AJAX, democracy and not maltreating users. But, what does this trio have in common? Until recently, I didn't realize they had any kinship, which was one reason I disliked the term Web 2.0 so much. What's the common thread? Web 2.0 means using the Web the way it's meant to be used. Furthermore, the current "trends" are simply a result of the Web's inherent nature as it emerges from beneath the broken models that were imposed on it during the Bubble.

I discovered this as I read an as-yet unpublished interview with Joe Kraus, the cofounder of Excite (the interview is from Jessica Livingston's Founders at Work, to be published by O'Reilly). "Excite really never got the business model right at all," Kraus tells Livingston. "We fell into the classic problem of how when a new medium comes out, it adopts the practices, the content, the business models of the old medium—which fails, and then the more appropriate models get figured out."

After the Bubble

It may have seemed as if not much was happening during the years after the Bubble burst. But in retrospect, something was transpiring: The Web was finding its natural angle of repose. The democracy component, for example—that's not an innovation in the sense that someone made something happen. Instead, it's what the Web naturally tends to produce.

Ditto for delivering desktop-like applications over the Web—that idea is almost as old as the Web itself. Sun co-opted the idea the first time around and gave us Java applets. Java has since evolved into a generic replacement for C++, but it represented a new model of software in 1996. The story was that you'd run Java "applets" delivered from a server, instead of desktop applications.

Of course, this plan collapsed under its own weight. Microsoft helped kill it, but it would have died anyway, as there was no uptake among hackers. When you find PR firms promoting something as the next development platform, you can be sure it's not. If it were, you wouldn't need PR firms to tell you because hackers would already be writing stuff on top of it, the way websites like Busmonster used Google Maps as a platform before Google even meant it to be one.

The proof that AJAX is the next hot platform is that thousands of hackers have spontaneously started building things on top of it.

Living in 2.0

There's another thing all three components of Web 2.0 have in common. Here's a clue. Suppose you approached investors with the following idea for a Web 2.0 startup: Sites like del.icio.us and Flickr allow users to "tag" content with descriptive tokens. But there's also a huge source of implicit tags that they ignore: the text within Web links. Moreover, these links represent a social network connecting the individuals and organizations that created the pages, and by using graph theory, we can compute from this network an estimate of the reputation of each member. We plan to mine the Web for these implicit tags, and use them together with the reputation hierarchy that they embody to enhance Web searches.

How long do you think it would take them to realize this is a description of Google? Google was a pioneer in all three components of Web 2.0: Their core business sounds crushingly hip when described in Web 2.0 terms. "Don't maltreat users" is a subset of "Don't be evil," and, of course, Google set off the whole AJAX boom with Google Maps.

Web 2.0 means using the Web as it was meant to be used, and Google does. That's its secret. The company's sailing with the wind instead of sitting becalmed, like the print media, praying for a business model, or trying to tack upwind by suing their customers, like Microsoft and the record labels. (Microsoft didn't sue their customers directly, but they seem to have done all they could to help SCO sue them.)

Google doesn't try to force things to happen its way. Instead, it tries to figure out what will happen and arrange to be involved when it does. That's the way to approach technology—and as business includes an ever larger technological component, the right way to do business.

The fact that Google is a "Web 2.0" company shows that, while meaningful, the term is also rather bogus. It's like the word allopathic. It just means doing things right, and it's a bad sign when you have a special word for that.


Paul Graham is the author of On Lisp (Prentice Hall, 1993), ANSI Common Lisp (Prentice Hall, 1995) and Hackers & Painters (O'Reilly, 2004). This article is derived from a more detailed analysis of Web 2.0 at www.paulgraham.com.


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