4. End of the Software Release Cycle
As noted above in the discussion of Google vs. Netscape, one of the defining characteristics of internet era software is that it is delivered as a service, not as a product. This fact leads to a number of fundamental changes in the business model of such a company:
- Operations must become a core competency. Google's or Yahoo!'s expertise in product development must be matched by an expertise in daily operations. So fundamental is the shift from software as artifact to software as service that the software will cease to perform unless it is maintained on a daily basis. Google must continuously crawl the web and update its indices, continuously filter out link spam and other attempts to influence its results, continuously and dynamically respond to hundreds of millions of asynchronous user queries, simultaneously matching them with context-appropriate advertisements.
It's no accident that Google's system administration, networking, and load balancing techniques are perhaps even more closely guarded secrets than their search algorithms. Google's success at automating these processes is a key part of their cost advantage over competitors.
It's also no accident that scripting languages such as Perl, Python, PHP, and now Ruby, play such a large role at web 2.0 companies. Perl was famously described by Hassan Schroeder, Sun's first webmaster, as "the duct tape of the internet." Dynamic languages (often called scripting languages and looked down on by the software engineers of the era of software artifacts) are the tool of choice for system and network administrators, as well as application developers building dynamic systems that require constant change.
- Users must be treated as co-developers, in a reflection of open source development practices (even if the software in question is unlikely to be released under an open source license.) The open source dictum, "release early and release often" in fact has morphed into an even more radical position, "the perpetual beta," in which the product is developed in the open, with new features slipstreamed in on a monthly, weekly, or even daily basis. It's no accident that services such as Gmail, Google Maps, Flickr, del.icio.us, and the like may be expected to bear a "Beta" logo for years at a time.
Real time monitoring of user behavior to see just which new features are used, and how they are used, thus becomes another required core competency. A web developer at a major online service remarked: "We put up two or three new features on some part of the site every day, and if users don't adopt them, we take them down. If they like them, we roll them out to the entire site."
Cal Henderson, the lead developer of Flickr, recently revealed that they deploy new builds up to every half hour. This is clearly a radically different development model! While not all web applications are developed in as extreme a style as Flickr, almost all web applications have a development cycle that is radically unlike anything from the PC or client-server era. It is for this reason that a recent ZDnet editorial concluded that Microsoft won't be able to beat Google: "Microsoft's business model depends on everyone upgrading their computing environment every two to three years. Google's depends on everyone exploring what's new in their computing environment every day."
While Microsoft has demonstrated enormous ability to learn from and ultimately best its competition, there's no question that this time, the competition will require Microsoft (and by extension, every other existing software company) to become a deeply different kind of company. Native Web 2.0 companies enjoy a natural advantage, as they don't have old patterns (and corresponding business models and revenue sources) to shed.
A Web 2.0 Investment Thesis
Venture capitalist Paul Kedrosky writes: "The key is to find the actionable investments where you disagree with the consensus". It's interesting to see how each Web 2.0 facet involves disagreeing with the consensus: everyone was emphasizing keeping data private, Flickr/Napster/et al. make it public. It's not just disagreeing to be disagreeable (pet food! online!), it's disagreeing where you can build something out of the differences. Flickr builds communities, Napster built breadth of collection.
Another way to look at it is that the successful companies all give up something expensive but considered critical to get something valuable for free that was once expensive. For example, Wikipedia gives up central editorial control in return for speed and breadth. Napster gave up on the idea of "the catalog" (all the songs the vendor was selling) and got breadth. Amazon gave up on the idea of having a physical storefront but got to serve the entire world. Google gave up on the big customers (initially) and got the 80% whose needs weren't being met. There's something very aikido (using your opponent's force against them) in saying "you know, you're right--absolutely anyone in the whole world CAN update this article. And guess what, that's bad news for you."
5. Lightweight Programming Models
Once the idea of web services became au courant, large companies jumped into the fray with a complex web services stack designed to create highly reliable programming environments for distributed applications.
But much as the web succeeded precisely because it overthrew much of hypertext theory, substituting a simple pragmatism for ideal design, RSS has become perhaps the single most widely deployed web service because of its simplicity, while the complex corporate web services stacks have yet to achieve wide deployment.
Similarly, Amazon.com's web services are provided in two forms: one adhering to the formalisms of the SOAP (Simple Object Access Protocol) web services stack, the other simply providing XML data over HTTP, in a lightweight approach sometimes referred to as REST (Representational State Transfer). While high value B2B connections (like those between Amazon and retail partners like ToysRUs) use the SOAP stack, Amazon reports that 95% of the usage is of the lightweight REST service.
Mapping-related web services had been available for some time from GIS vendors such as ESRI as well as from MapQuest and Microsoft MapPoint. But Google Maps set the world on fire because of its simplicity. While experimenting with any of the formal vendor-supported web services required a formal contract between the parties, the way Google Maps was implemented left the data for the taking, and hackers soon found ways to creatively re-use that data.
There are several significant lessons here:
- Support lightweight programming models that allow for loosely coupled systems. The complexity of the corporate-sponsored web services stack is designed to enable tight coupling. While this is necessary in many cases, many of the most interesting applications can indeed remain loosely coupled, and even fragile. The Web 2.0 mindset is very different from the traditional IT mindset!
- Think syndication, not coordination. Simple web services, like RSS and REST-based web services, are about syndicating data outwards, not controlling what happens when it gets to the other end of the connection. This idea is fundamental to the internet itself, a reflection of what is known as the end-to-end principle.
- Design for "hackability" and remixability. Systems like the original web, RSS, and AJAX all have this in common: the barriers to re-use are extremely low. Much of the useful software is actually open source, but even when it isn't, there is little in the way of intellectual property protection. The web browser's "View Source" option made it possible for any user to copy any other user's web page; RSS was designed to empower the user to view the content he or she wants, when it's wanted, not at the behest of the information provider; the most successful web services are those that have been easiest to take in new directions unimagined by their creators. The phrase "some rights reserved," which was popularized by the Creative Commons to contrast with the more typical "all rights reserved," is a useful guidepost.
Innovation in Assembly
Lightweight business models are a natural concomitant of lightweight programming and lightweight connections. The Web 2.0 mindset is good at re-use. A new service like housingmaps.com was built simply by snapping together two existing services. Housingmaps.com doesn't have a business model (yet)--but for many small-scale services, Google AdSense (or perhaps Amazon associates fees, or both) provides the snap-in equivalent of a revenue model.
These examples provide an insight into another key web 2.0 principle, which we call "innovation in assembly." When commodity components are abundant, you can create value simply by assembling them in novel or effective ways. Much as the PC revolution provided many opportunities for innovation in assembly of commodity hardware, with companies like Dell making a science out of such assembly, thereby defeating companies whose business model required innovation in product development, we believe that Web 2.0 will provide opportunities for companies to beat the competition by getting better at harnessing and integrating services provided by others.
6. Software Above the Level of a Single Device
One other feature of Web 2.0 that deserves mention is the fact that it's no longer limited to the PC platform. In his parting advice to Microsoft, long time Microsoft developer Dave Stutz pointed out that "Useful software written above the level of the single device will command high margins for a long time to come."
Of course, any web application can be seen as software above the level of a single device. After all, even the simplest web application involves at least two computers: the one hosting the web server and the one hosting the browser. And as we've discussed, the development of the web as platform extends this idea to synthetic applications composed of services provided by multiple computers.
But as with many areas of Web 2.0, where the "2.0-ness" is not something new, but rather a fuller realization of the true potential of the web platform, this phrase gives us a key insight into how to design applications and services for the new platform.
To date, iTunes is the best exemplar of this principle. This application seamlessly reaches from the handheld device to a massive web back-end, with the PC acting as a local cache and control station. There have been many previous attempts to bring web content to portable devices, but the iPod/iTunes combination is one of the first such applications designed from the ground up to span multiple devices. TiVo is another good example.
iTunes and TiVo also demonstrate many of the other core principles of Web 2.0. They are not web applications per se, but they leverage the power of the web platform, making it a seamless, almost invisible part of their infrastructure. Data management is most clearly the heart of their offering. They are services, not packaged applications (although in the case of iTunes, it can be used as a packaged application, managing only the user's local data.) What's more, both TiVo and iTunes show some budding use of collective intelligence, although in each case, their experiments are at war with the IP lobby's. There's only a limited architecture of participation in iTunes, though the recent addition of podcasting changes that equation substantially.
This is one of the areas of Web 2.0 where we expect to see some of the greatest change, as more and more devices are connected to the new platform. What applications become possible when our phones and our cars are not consuming data but reporting it? Real time traffic monitoring, flash mobs, and citizen journalism are only a few of the early warning signs of the capabilities of the new platform.