Web 2.0 Connectedness

The following is republished from the Tech Times #129.

The holiday break gave me a chance to get into some new products and services that had been on my "try that" list for awhile. Although I’m excited about them all, I’m frustrated by how separate they are.

With "Web 2.0" on everyone’s lips, it seems like every bright mind on the Web is focused on building the next killer app. Small and focused seems to be the flavour of the month: Gmail is great at email, Flickr nails photos, and CalendarHub and its ilk have got calendars just about licked. But as we embrace each of these disparate services, we further segment the data we rely on day-to-day, making it more difficult to use them together when we need to.

If you believe the pundits (yours truly included), openness and standards compliance are two of the characteristics that should define any true member of the Web 2.0 stable. Any data you put into a Web application should be available to pull out again in a portable format, and should be accessible to other applications through well-documented APIs.

In the wild, the open API thing seems to be happening, at least. Some of these interfaces aren’t as well documented as they should be, but they’re usually there if you dig deep enough. The culture of "Web mash-ups", seen most commonly in the form of third-party applications based on Google Maps, is a prominent example of this. But how many of the commercial-grade applications and services are embracing this interoperability? All the big players seem to be focused on building new services, rather than finding better ways to use existing services together.

This is the biggest challenge I see on the horizon for Web developers. Could 2006 be the year to tackle it? Here are just a few of the areas that come to mind as having room for much greater connectedness than we are
seeing today.

Your Digital Identity

How many accounts do you have on various websites? If you’re like me, you lost count long ago. Despite my best efforts, I still routinely happen across sites where my user profile contains details from a home address that is now four years out-of-date. For me, it’s getting to the point where I can’t even remember if I have an account on some sites, let alone remembering the login details.

This is getting to be an old problem, and big companies have tried to solve it before. Microsoft’s Passport fell victim to licensing fees and platform lock-in, which forced the service to retreat to being used only on Microsoft websites.

But this problem is about to get a whole lot more important. As you invest more and more of your personal data into online services, you’re going to want to be able to share them between these services without sharing them with the rest of the world. It would be nice, for example, if you and your spouse could view each other’s calendars even though they are hosted by two different online services without having to expose that calendar data to the Web at large.

Unified authentication, and a framework for permitting services to access each other’s private data when appropriate, is key to the practical usability of many of the services. The need will shortly reach a critical mass, which I hope will help push forward one of the fledgling solutions that are waiting in the wings.

Update: Sxip Identity is a start-up pushing a solution to these issues under the name Identity 2.0.

Unified Publishing

Far from becoming the purely commercial mecca that many feared it would at the start of the decade, the Web has blossomed as a platform for individual expression. Blogs are reaching the hands of mainstream Internet users, forums are available on every subject imaginable, and a raft of social networking applications are providing new ways for people to express themselves through photos, music, links and more.

And while each of these forms of personal online publishing finds mainstream adoption, the ability to bring these various forms of expression together in a cohesive way has so far remained couched in Web developer voodoo.

If someone reads an article of mine that he likes, he should be able to click over to my personal website and see everything that I’ve written publicly, to the extent that I would like him to be able to. My personal blog entries, my work blog entries, my last.fm journal entries, my posts on public forums across the Web, my del.icio.us bookmarks, my Flickr photos… all should be accessible in one "stuff I’ve published" view.

Now, if you’re a Web developer like me, you can see that this is mostly possible today with a combination of RSS feeds, Web services, and extensions to blogging software. But everyone should be able to have a hub of personal expression like this, and I expect it won’t be long until a sleek solution puts this kind of thing within reach of non-technical users.

Sharing Data (and Metadata)

I’ve already mentioned that, as of right now, online services aren’t very good at sharing data with each other. The groundwork is there in the form of a quickly growing galaxy of open APIs, but new applications are springing up a lot more quickly than solutions for using them together. Nevertheless, I’m sure the problem of data sharing will slowly be solved. I’m less sure about metadata.

Tagging is a great example, here. Rather than building rigid category hierarchies or folder structures to store your data, newer services let you assign multiple tags to your data items. I’ve got tags everywhere. I tag my bookmarks in del.icio.us. I tag my email in Gmail. I tag my photos in Flickr. I tag my music in last.fm. But in every case those tags are locked into their respective applications. I may tag both bookmarks and email with ‘techtimes’ on del.icio.us and Gmail respectively when they have to do with my newsletter, but there is no place that I can go to see everything that I’ve tagged with ‘techtimes’.

Many of the successful new Web applications out there make it easy to breathe life into our static data by decorating it with all sorts of metadata. But by and large, when you take your data out of an application, you lose that metadata. As the metadata in our lives becomes as valuable as the data it describes, openness and portability will be equally valuable for our metadata as it is for our data.

Again, in most cases this is a problem solvable by a Web geek with a lot of spare time, but a clean solution for mainstream users will be needed before long.

So before you go looking for the next killer app, stop and think about some of the problems with existing killer apps that you might be able to solve instead. My bet is that the solutions to these problems will be killer apps in and of themselves.

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  • http://www.crunch42.com/ crunch42

    While I think that emerging standards are useful for getting more work for application coders, the part of me that uses applications for myself is pretty much stuck on traditional software. Why use gmail when I can use Mac Mail on my laptop? Same for iPhoto and iCal. Even with a DSL connection my local apps are always going to be faster than any distributed app.

  • Turk

    those are beta apps sir. of course their still unconnected. they wanna do one thing good first. and then one of the big corps will acquire them and integrate with their existing network of online services. that’s how it works.

  • http://www.dotcomwebdev.com chris ward

    microsoft’s start.com?

  • Jaffa The Cake

    *sigh*
    Is 2006 the year of the buzzwords without actual definition?

  • trovster

    Well, how about… (dum dum dum) SuprGlu, “Gluing your life together”. Sign up for an account, add in default services or any RSS feed you can find, and it all appears in one blog-style format (hell, there are even multiple designs you can choose from, or write your own; I did). Great for grabbing all your information into one area.

  • Alex Torrijos

    I enjoyed reading your article.

    I think that there will continue to be a consolidation of various applications and services. It seems to me that the major players, i.e. Google, Yahoo, etc. are attempting to provide various services using just one account. As more of these killer apps are developed, bigger players in the industry will choose to partner or acquire companies whose services may complement or augment their own services.

    I believe the trend is kind of similar to malls where all the different kinds of stores and services are under one roof. Another analogy could be of an online version of the OS Wars.

    There is also a strong move for web based applications to be accessible on the desktop and in the mobile space. An example of these developments would be Google Earth and Yahoo Widgets.

    It’s a kind of convergence. I also think the besides the problem of not having different services available from one account or access point, is the problem of not having one global payment system. It seems to me that demands of users in the virtual world will also drive social and economic changes in the “real” world.

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  • Allan White

    As chance would have it, I just wrote a post on the need for a customizable RSS dashboard, which would help both public and private users see what’s going on in one’s digital world at a glance.

    I think something like SuperGlu is a good solution technically, but I want one that I can own – tweak, visually brand, etc. AND live on my own server. I dislike the idea of relying on another service to integrate all my…services.

  • benoit808

    I can really see the need for a “consolidator”. A couple posts mentioned the fact that big corporations such as Google or Yahoo will buy those smaller killer apps and integrate with their existing services which would solve the integration problems. I would have to disagree since it would be integrated as long as you choose to use exclusively the Google or teh Yahoo apps. What if you want to use one app from Google and another one from Yahoo? You still don’t have any way to consolidate or group those…

  • Huynh

    Shameless self promotion: For a preliminary idea of “connecting” different sites, you might want to check out

    http://simile.mit.edu/piggy-bank/

    The idea is to not rely on Web sites to do the connecting, but to build the connecting functionality right into the browser. Try to look past the Google Maps demo.

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  • kyberfabrikken

    OpenId provides a system similar to sxip, but truly distributed. I like it’s simplicity.

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