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Saturday 3 January 2009

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This article appeared in the December 2008 edition of the National Accountant magazine.

The term Web 2.0 assumes equal importance and impact as did the internet revolution of the mid 1990s. But from a business perspective, this promise remains unfulfilled.

The World Wide Web is essentially using the internet to display rich content – bringing graphic design to a medium which was previously restricted to plain text.

It gave rise to what we now know as the website – which is essentially an online brochure – and allowed talented designers to extend good communication into the online realm.

The latest incarnation, Web 2.0, is about enhanced interactivity. It’s about giving users the capacity to actively participate – uploading content and ideas as opposed to just passively receiving communication messages.

NEW FEATURES

Claimed successes of Web 2.0 include social networking (MySpace, Facebook, YouTube etc.), wikis (collaboratively created web pages), blogs (web logs), podcasts (audio or video files distributed over the internet) and RSS feeds.

Social networking is certainly new and significant and perhaps warrants being considered a major advance in the evolution of the internet. Similarly wiki technology represents a breakthrough in providing capacity for collaboration on projects.

Blogs and podcasts, on the other hand, don’t really take things much further than they were last century. People have been using the internet to ‘have their say’ since the earliest times. Back then, it was called “discussion” or “forums”. Blogging is largely a name change for the same thing.

Podcasts used to be called audio. There may be different means of delivery nowadays, but it’s not new or vastly improved.

USEFUL OR NOT?

Some businesses have been using social networking for viral marketing campaigns. The nature of social networking sites is well suited to this, with the extended reach of friends and contacts that extend and grow into significant numbers of people. But the concept is not really new.

Old-style discussion forums were targeted in this way back in the 90s.

I just received a Facebook reminder email from someone about a request to ‘become friends’ (Facebook-speak for linking up) which I had previously ignored. He wrote: “As one of my valued contacts, please join me as a friend on facebook. Here I’ll be sharing company news and updates. I’ll also be providing some special offers just for my facebook friends. Hope to see you online soon!”

This guy has 1368 ‘friends’ already so it’s not hard to see this request for what it is. He’s a habitual networker and is building circulation for his business promotions. The subtext is “be my friend and receive my spam”. Interestingly, he also belongs to 70 groups. It’s the groups that multiply the connectivity effect of social networking.

My view is that without establishing “meaningful” relationships, there is little value in this numbers-game activity – especially within the professional services realm. People looking for professional services such as accounting are likely to be more unimpressed than impressed by spam communications.

BEST VALUE APPLICATIONS

Wiki technology presents a terrific opportunity for online collaboration, but hasn’t been seriously embraced and this capacity remains largely unfulfilled potential. Public wiki projects such at the City of Melbourne’s “Future Melbourne” project have been lauded as break-through in terms of participative democracy but, again, the hype doesn’t measure up.

Google Documents has taken this a step further and online spreadsheets and the like are a significant step forward. It will be interesting to see whether businesses are comfortable with their sensitive information sitting on a Google server somewhere out there in cyberspace.

In my opinion the killer application of the internet is – and has been since the start – email. Email doesn’t qualify as either Web 1.0 or Web 2.0. Strictly speaking, it is not “www”, therefore it’s not web. But email represents the real internet revolution. It dominates our business lives. 

How many businesses these days can operate without it? When the internet ‘goes down’, it’s not our inability to browse websites (either Web 1.0 or 2.0) that incapacitates our businesses. It’s our inability to send and receive email that brings everything to a grinding halt.

I am a great fan of e-newsletters. While they have lost a lot of punch recently due to their popularity, they are a very cost-effective way to stay in touch with a client base. To be successful they need excellent content to be underpinned by a ‘real’ relationship. The first thing that I do when I receive one from someone I don’t know is scroll to the bottom to look for the “unsubscribe” link.

But this technology is not Web 2.0. Although it uses HTML coding for its display, it could be argued that it even pre-dates Web 1.0. It’s the email delivery platform that is the real item of importance.

The world wide web has never matched the simple and unheralded email as a contender for internet killer application. The www camp could come along with Web 3.0, 4.0, 5.0 and 6.0 and still be insignificant in the scheme of things.

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