Thoughts on Sir Tim Berners-Lee, mobility and beyond at the Web 2.0 Summit 2009
London schoolboy Tim Berners-Lee was just 14 when two computers talked to each other for the very first time 40 years ago via ARPANET, the predecessor to the Internet. It’s safe to say this turned out to be a bigger deal than anyone knew at the time (except maybe young Tim).
When he first conceived of the World Wide Web 20 years later (in 1989), Berners-Lee knew it had to be a fully open, public-domain platform. As he explained in conversation with Tim O’Reilly at the Web 2.0 Summit last week in San Francisco, “otherwise it would not have worked.” The system had to be really flexible, without proprietary formats and constraints, “a very creative read-write space, like a sandbox — a group collaborative thing,” to enable it to spread its usefulness across the whole world as he had conceived it. “It had to be — we didn’t call it ‘World-Wide’ Web for nothing.”
One score, the change of a millennium, and the “versioning” of WWW to “Web 2.0” later, the Web is still trying to fulfill that promise. Berners-Lee acknowledges that Web platforms and blogs and wikis have approached that collaborative vision, but in an awesome perspective in his session which closed the conference, he reminded us that “only 20-25 percent of humanity actually uses the Web at all.”
While this begs the question how and whether the Web should extend to blanket the other three-quarters of the world, if you turn it around you can see that Web 2.0, now a kindergartner at five years old, is ready to be and continues to be itself disrupted through its reach — and hopefully by those who will need it the most.
The most recent, most potent disruptions are happening in the mobile, realtime, and local spaces and hence into the “everywheres and everyones” through the corners of the Earth. This year’s Summit did not disappoint along those lines both in terms of real news, cutting-edge developments, and a little bit of whimsey along the way.
On the local, realtime front, with a big kick in the pants by Twitter, the major search players are paying a lot of attention to the “everywhere, everyone, AND all at once” phenomenon (read Jeremiah Owyang’s good wrap from a business perspective on the related Google / Microsoft announcements). But one thing that was almost lost in the hype — almost buried in Marissa Mayer’s surprise announcement of Google Social Search — is the local aspect. Through the years we’ve witnessed the evolution of “finding things” from Browse (Yahoo) –> to Search (Google) –> to Share (Facebook) — and now we approach the next phase: all of the above, then add “Where” — and then EveryWhere.
Take a good look at the demo: first the Twitter-dare-I-say-Google-open-social-graph announcement has to do with bringing the particular GeoLocation of New Zealand closer to home, via your social circle. But toward the end of the demo Google solidifies the geo/local aspect. Says Mayer, “You can see how analyzing these social networks can really improve the overall relevance, comprehensiveness, and quality of the results. And one of the biggest pockets we’ve seen where this can really enhance your search experience is on local information. Has one of your friends already seen that play? Have they been to that restaurant or have they been to that hotel?”
This is important because local may literally be “the last mile” (thanks @donambridge…) of the three-quarters-of-the-rest-of-the-world for Web search, which starts to look more and more “old-school” the more people’s blogs are visited because of Twitter instead of because of Google.
Add the mobile component to realtime+local, and you have the game-changing combination. Mobile is the “incremental driver of Internet user / usage growth” according to the always-excellent Morgan Stanley’s Mary Meeker session (PDF). “Next generation platforms (social networking + mobile) are driving unprecedented change in communications and commerce.”
Via mobile, the native intelligence of your (social) presence is flipping the “reaching beyond 25% of the world” question sideways — so that it’s not (just) about the fact that mobile reaches further, but mobile allows us to change the reach entirely.
Cell phone signals render humans as sensors (watch the amazing inventions on this panel), via multiple sensors in your iPhones, via where you are when, and via what you are sharing — explicitly or implicitly — about it when you are there. From the “implicit crowdsourcing” that provides traffic and route information via maps and real-time feeds of Waze, to the entertaining audience statistics (and more) that Path Intelligence could glean by our (cell-phone-enabled) presence, to tagged, geocoded images that help you find invasive plants, to the incredible concept of “telemicroscopy for disease disease diagnosis” (CellScope), to the portal ultrasound gadget that GE’s Jeff Immelt brought with him to more… Needless to say, there is a huge wealth of innovation happening in the realtime mobile sphere.
Beyond mobile (since mobile infrastructure is not yet everywhere), we also saw some amazing satellite innovations at the Summit. Walter Scott of DigitalGlobe stopped by to give us a demo and some intriguing ideas about satellite imagery that we can now refresh two to three times a day. Perhaps Arthur C. Clarke did not even visualize this!
And speaking of visualization, some of the innovations coming out of the piles of data we get through all these mobile, real-time, world-wide sensors can be very, very beautiful. Aaron Koblin, an artist specializing in data visualization who introduced GAFFTA (Grey Area Foundation for the Arts) while at the Summit, has an amazing sandbox of visualizations.
So while only one in four people have ever touched the World Wide Web at all, both the Web and these people are going further than ever before. Tim Berners-Lee advises us to concentrate on the emergent trends of GeoLocation and a move from Web pages to mobile and apps, as well as the upcoming standard of HTML5. And one key takeaway from him is that we need to “make sure the Web is designed appropriately for other cultures as well.”
And while we’re at it, let’s make sure we’re listening to those other cultures and watching for the beauty in the great big pile of data, because “the other 75%” of everywhere has at least as big a chance of disrupting the Web as the Web has of disrupting it.