Sunday, April 30, 2006

Bubble 2.0?

I wouldn't quite call it "Bubble 2.0" just because VCs are eager to invest again. The Internet is a genuinely big deal. The bust was as much an overreaction as the boom. It's to be expected that once we started to pull out of the bust, there would be a lot of growth in this area, just as there was in the industries that spiked the sharpest before the Depression.

The reason this won't turn into a second Bubble is that the IPO market is gone. Venture investors are driven by exit strategies. The reason they were funding all those laughable startups during the late 90s was that they hoped to sell them to gullible retail investors; they hoped to be laughing all the way to the bank. Now that route is closed. Now the default exit strategy is to get bought, and acquirers are less prone to irrational exuberance than IPO investors. The closest you'll get to Bubble valuations is Rupert Murdoch paying $580 million for Myspace. That's only off by a factor of 10 or so.

Does "Web 2.0" mean anything more than the name of a conference yet? I don't like to admit it, but it's starting to. When people say "Web 2.0" now, I have some idea what they mean. And the fact that I both despise the phrase and understand it is the surest proof that it has started to mean something.

One ingredient of its meaning is certainly Ajax, which I can still only just bear to use without scare quotes. Basically, what "Ajax" means is "Javascript now works." And that in turn means that web-based applications can now be made to work much more like desktop ones.

As you read this, a whole new generation of software is being written to take advantage of Ajax. There hasn't been such a wave of new applications since microcomputers first appeared. Even Microsoft sees it, but it's too late for them to do anything more than leak "internal" documents designed to give the impression they're on top of this new trend.

In fact the new generation of software is being written way too fast for Microsoft even to channel it, let alone write their own in house. Their only hope now is to buy all the best Ajax startups before Google does. And even that's going to be hard, because Google has as big a head start in buying microstartups as it did in search a few years ago. After all, Google Maps, the canonical Ajax application, was the result of a startup they bought.

So ironically the original description of the Web 2.0 conference turned out to be partially right: web-based applications are a big component of Web 2.0. But I'm convinced they got this right by accident. The Ajax boom didn't start till early 2005, when Google Maps appeared and the term "Ajax" was coined.

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