The whys and wherefores of Web 2.0

User interaction and 3-D interfaces are some of the characteristics of websites that utilise Web 2.0 technology, speakers at a recent event say

Web 2.0 means different things to different people, but according to Fidelity Labs’ Charles Berman, it could one day mean wider use on conventional desktops and websites of the colourful, three-dimensional graphical interfaces seen in virtual worlds like Second Life and popular games like World of Warcraft.

Fidelity Labs is a software beta testing division of Fidelity Investments, a major financial services company in the US.

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

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

Berman noted that the US 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 says. Research also needs to be done regarding whether 3-D interfaces might appeal to a broader demographic than many believe, 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 says.

Fidelity itself is doing a lot of research into ways to make its assorted websites 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 from Fidelity Centre for Applied Technology gave Network World editors a tour of that centre last year, highlighting whiz-bang network management interfaces, among other applications.

Berman also believes mashups — websites or applications that combine content from two or more sources — are 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 event attendees to think creatively about how their organisations might combine applications to serve customers better. He pointed to Salesforce.com’s website as an example of a mashup, in that the software-as-a-service vendor lets third-parties build and tout their Salesforce.com-software-based 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 websites and applications, many of which rely on Web 2.0 technologies. They noted Web 2.0 consists of three things: user contributions, openness and rich interfaces (such as 3-D).

To determine whether a website 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 department store Macy’s. They cited Tivo, which links to a third-party message board of users. 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 website owners don’t provide a way for customers and others to talk on their site, they should at least figure out a way to track what users are saying about the site owner’s organisation on other sites, he said.

Tools for enabling user-generated content on sites 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 users 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, organisations are essentially building platforms or “containers” within their websites that let users generate content the organisation might never have dreamed up, Mulder said. For that reason, companies need to build sites in a flexible way, he said, pointing to Flickr, which started off as a game and grew into a photo-sharing site.

Of course, such openness can have its downsides, such as when Chevrolet encouraged customers to make their own video ads for its Tahoe SUV, 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 website, for example. Companies need to figure out to what extent they want to support user-generated mashups and to create their own, he said.

Organisations also need to keep pushing ahead on richer interfaces to their websites, using such technologies as Flash and Asynchronous JavaScript + XML where appropriate. The Molecular consultants showed examples of websites 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 websites are becoming less like static places and more like applications that can be manipulated, La Rosa told attendees.

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