Critical questions


Web 2.0 might mean something different to nearly everyone familiar with the term. According to Fidelity Labs’ Charles Berman, it could one day mean wider use of colorful, 3-D, graphical interfaces along the lines of what you see in virtual worlds like Second Life and popular games like World of Warcraft on business Web sites and desktops.

Berman, who stressed he was sharing his own views and not those of his employer, spoke Wednesday at the “Web 2.0, What is it and what does it mean?” event jointly organized by the Babson College Center for Information Management Studies (CIMS) and the Massachusetts Network Communications Council .

While some at first blush might think the 3-D images and avatars of such sites as Second Life are kind of silly, Berman noted that people used to think the same thing back during his days at AT&T Bell Labs years ago, when researchers were working on moving from text-based to GUI-based screens for monitoring networks. “Clearly, now that seems like the most obvious thing in the world, but at that time it wasn’t,” he said. “That’s perspective with which I look at this and say this is a radically more expressive user interface.”

Berman noted that the U.S. military is already exploiting such 3-D interfaces.

Questions remain to be answered about just how much information users can assimilate while looking at a screen, Berman said. Research also needs to be done regarding whether 3-D interfaces might appeal to a broader demographic than you first might think, given the younger, male community typically associated with gaming sites. Older people, including those who aren’t able to get out and see friends as often as they used to, might find such interfaces appealing for social interaction, he said.

Fidelity itself is doing a lot of research into ways to make its assorted Web sites more usable by its older clients, and running all sorts of tests to ensure its sites are accessible to people with poor eyesight or limited dexterity. Berman and a team of Fidelity Center for Applied Technology members gave Network World editors a tour of that center last summer, highlighting whiz-bang network management interfaces, among other applications.

Berman is also high on mashups — Web sites or applications that combine content from two or more sources — as a promising Web 2.0 technology. Fidelity combines information about its branches with geographical information to help customers find locations via the Web. While geography-based mashups have mushroomed on the Web, Berman urged attendees to think creatively about how their organizations might combine applications to serve customers better. He pointed to’s AppExchange Web site as an example of a mashup, in that the software-as-a-service vendor lets third-parties build and tout their creations on the site.

Also speaking at the event were Steve Mulder and Ricardo La Rosa of Internet consulting firm Molecular, which helps companies build Web sites and applications, many of which rely on Web 2.0 technologies. They said Web 2.0 consists of three things: user contributions, openness and rich interfaces (such as 3-D).

To determine whether a Web site is truly open to user contributions, they suggested asking to what degree users’ presence is felt there. They cited Amazon and eBay as leaders with built-in customer ratings and reviews — features found on many other sites now, including those of more traditional outfits like Macy’s. They cited Tivo, which links to a third-party message board of users, even though some are proposing hacks of the time-shifting TV system. But they also pointed to sites like ESPN’s, which are less interactive, in that users tend to be cordoned off in a section of their own.

“How can you let people rate stuff on your site?” asked Mulder, Molecular’s principal consultant of user experience.

Even if you don’t provide a way for customers and others to converse on your site, you should at least figure out a way to track what they are saying about your organization on other sites, he said.

Tools for enabling user-generated content on your site include wikis and tagging, the latter of which can make searching for information easier. Mulder cited comics publisher Marvel as aggressively supporting user-generated content on its site, even letting them help write the biographies of Captain America and other characters, Wikipedia -style. “Think how much it would cost Marvel to do that on its own,” he said. Lego is another company that is heavily into user-generated content, supporting regular contests on its site for those coming up with new creations using the interlocking plastic blocks.

More and more, organizations are essentially building platforms or “containers” within their Web sites that let users generate content the organization might never have dreamed up, Mulder said. For that reason, companies need to build Web sites in a flexible way, he said. (He pointed to Flickr, which started off as a game and surprisingly grew into a photo-sharing site that Yahoo now owns.)

Of course, such openness can have its downsides, such as when Chevrolet encouraged customers to make their own video ads for the Tahoe, and some were less than flattering. A Chevrolet general manager concluded that censoring content was a no-win situation and that even the negative ads at least got people talking about the car. “You have to ask yourself, to what degree are you ready to let go?” Mulder said.

This includes how available you want to make APIs, as companies such as Amazon have done, said La Rosa, Molecular’s principal consultant of engineering.

The reality is that companies have less and less control over how people will use their sites, La Rosa said, citing tools that let readers strip out ads while viewing The New York Times Web site, for example. Companies need to figure out to what extent they want to support user-generated mashups and to create their own, he said.

Organizations also need to keep pushing ahead on richer interfaces to their Web sites, using such technologies as Flash and Asynchronous JavaScript + XML where appropriate. The Molecular consultants showed examples of Web sites that make it easier for customers to walk through a checkout process, for example, in which they essentially stay on the same screen rather than having to click arrows to go forward or backward.

The bottom line is that Web sites are becoming less like static places and more like applications that can be manipulated, La Rosa said.


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