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Saturday, December 30, 2006

The Next Frontier: Web 2.0

Ajax Muscles Up
by Steve Smith, December 2006 issue
For many marketers, the overused "Web 2.0" moniker is synonymous with the network
effect, be it the social search of Yahoo's Del.icio.us, the ersatz village of MySpace, or the content-sharing of YouTube. But the stealth trend to watch in the Web 2.0 model involves a radical rethinking of Web interfaces that moves the solitary desktop computing experience online and into a collaborative space.

Online communities and offerings like Google's Gmail, Yahoo's Flickr, and Zoho.com, a suite of business productivity tools, represent only the beginning of a trend that offers individuals and businesses the applications they need to craft and build their own communities.

Dubbed "Ajax" programming by Jesse James Garrett, the president of Adaptive Path, a user experience consultancy, this collection of technologies is rapidly transforming the way we interact with the Web. "In a lot of ways it is the point at which the Web reaches maturity and starts to fulfill a lot of the dreams that people had about it in the mid-'90s," says Garrett. E-mail, calendaring, word processing, even spreadsheets could easily migrate online in the next few years.

"We're entering an unprecedented period of user interface innovation, as Web developers are finally able to build Web applications as rich as local PC-based applications," says Tim O'Reilly of O'Reilly Media in his seminal essay on the Web.2.0 concept. The open-source software and applications movement has also helped spur these developments.

What does all of this mean to marketers? No one knows for sure yet, but it's no accident that the Web's 800-pound Google-rilla is already at the center of Ajax. Web-based collaborative word processor, Writely.com, represents the current apex of Ajax programming, and it's owned by Google. The new Google Desktop Gadgets deploy these technologies to put everything from games to calendars, clocks, and even Google search boxes and results on Web sites, further proliferating Big G's reach.

Microsoft has countered with its evolving line of "Live" Web-based services. The most immediate fallout from exploding Ajax use could be a breakdown in traditional metrics. Ajax applications engage users for longer periods of time and offer them rich data, but they don't spur Web-page reloading. The page-view metric doesn't work here; this is one trend that begs for different ways to gauge user involvement. But the real promise of Ajax may be in letting designers and advertisers plant highly functional and fully interactive applications on anyone's Web site. Earlier this year, the site builder network Freewebs.com partnered with Sony Pictures to create a "Zathura" widget offering games related to the film. The widget got picked up by 11,000 Freewebs sites and used 600,000 times, according to the company, which is now trying to turn widgets into brand advertising.

Ultimately, Ajax could help marketers weave their way into the ethos of Web 2.0 by offering consumers more functions and features, not more marketing. "A lot of Web 2.0 is about taking the Web back from marketers," says Matt MacQueen, director of experience planning of Arc Worldwide, an integrated marketing company.

The challenge for marketing in the Web 2.0 world, then, is not to find new and clever ways for your brand to be a buddy on MySpace. "You have to offer value or solve a problem I as a consumer have," MacQueen says. If consumers are controlling the messages they receive and even the designs of their Web interactions by using tools like RSS and Ajax widgets to shape their browsing experiences, then marketers need to start giving them the tools to do so.

Contributing writer Steve Smith is a longtime new-media consultant and columnist, and current editor of Wireless Business Forecast for Access Intelligence at TelecomWeb.com. Contact him at popeyesmith@comcast.net.

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