Tuesday, July 31, 2007

The Future of The Web

The next-generation Net won’t just be more portable and personal. It’ll also harness the power of people, making it even easier to zero in on precisely what you’re looking for.

The web’s most common method of interaction is the tried-and-true link: “Click here and we’ll show you a different page.” But the future of online will be fast, two-way communication, the roots of which are beginning to take hold. New technologies will soon give us speedy, uninterrupted access to the Web wherever we wander. We’ll see innovative Web applications that allow us to access information anywhere and work seamlessly with colleagues around the globe. People will gain more power online—rather than simply reading the news, they’ll be able to go out and uncover some stories of their own. And new sites and services will offer information targeted precisely to your needs, rendering one-size-fits-all sites obsolete.

The Web Gets Down to Work

New web services—ones that mimic desktop applications but work entirely within a browser window—appear constantly. But the Web apps you’ll eventually use will focus on productivity and mobility, instead of simply giving you the same functions you’d find in a desktop application.

“Web applications are terrific for situations where you want to share and collaborate,” says Google product manager Bret Taylor. “That’s where we see the most benefit: for consumers planning the annual family reunion or a group of colleagues putting together a sales proposal.”

Brandon Schauer, design strategist for Web consulting firm Adaptive Path, says the next phase of Web applications will focus on practical uses: “things that the rest of the world might have a reason to interact with, not just the Generation Y people who have time to click around,” he says.

One business-focused Web application, Coghead, has been in development since 2003 and is likely to launch soon. It’s a beefy-looking app that allows nonprogrammers to build their own custom applications for tasks like inventory control, with data stored entirely online. Coghead CEO Paul McNamara says the application will be aimed at small to medium-size businesses, and at people who have some level of technical ability—“people who do macros in Microsoft Excel, work in Microsoft Access, or Adobe Dream-weaver,” explains McNamara.

Another Web application that reflects that trend toward productivity is weSpendMoney. It’s one of the first offerings to store users’ financial data exclusively online, unlike more traditional desktop applications. Pedro Sousa, one of the developers, says that future versions of the application will allow users to view their data on the tiny screens of Web-enabled cell phones, too.

A focus on mobility is a common theme among Web apps. “At some point, applications as advanced as Google Earth will be able to run on devices as small as a cell phone,” says Google’s Taylor. “Users will be able to search and collaborate more effectively no matter where they are.”

Another category that will gain in popularity is what Adaptive Path’s Schauer calls “workarounds.” Examples include Kayak.com, a site that uses a Web app to help people deal with the aggravation of shopping for airline tickets, and VideoEgg, which compresses video via a plug-in, thereby skirting poky uploads caused by slow upstream connections.

Social networking sites like MySpace are huge, but sites that aren’t purely social will use people connections to solve problems. Schauer says sites that use social networks in this way “plug into what the Web has always been great at, which is getting you together with people who share the same interests but may be miles away.” Examples include Last.fm and Pandora, which ascertain your musical preferences and play songs from additional artists you might like. These sites also let you find and play “stations” that have been created by others. Another similar site is Soundflavor.

Search Engines With Real Savvy

Today most search engines depend primarily on algorithmic processing: results that are ordered by popularity. But better systems are beginning to supplement the blunt-force approach. “We want to do a better job of understanding the user’s intent and the content provider’s intentions,” says Peter Norvig, director of research for Google. “We mostly rely on matching keywords, but we’d like to get closer to matching the intent.”

Microsoft is another company investing heavily in research on search technology. “We’re working on all kinds of things that will go away from ‘here’s ten links on a page,’” says Adam Sohn, a director in Microsoft’s online services group, which is responsible for the Windows Live portal. “If someone is searching for ‘Jaguar,’ he explains, “the smarts to distinguish between ‘he’s looking for a car and ‘a big cat in the jungle’—that’s coming.”

Search engines can also deliver improved, more personalized results by adding better sources of information. “A search engine would be very good at telling me who won the FIFA World Cup, but bad at telling who’s the best nanny in the neighborhood,” says Sohn. So search engines are adding social networking features for sharing information within small groups.

Social-network searching will extend to other areas, too. Sohn says most video sites encourage the people who upload clips and those who view them to add tags. “Over time, especially with video, there will be this social input, where people add tags to other people’s video. Then you get this sort of community-reinforced set of searchable attributes.”

Soliciting input will also help provide searchers with more personalized results. Norvig says Google should do a better job of helping people use the search engine the way it is by offering proactive suggestions—for example, “It looks like you’re trying to do this kind of search; here’s how you do it.” Sohn says Microsoft is building two-way feedback mechanisms that will ask users how useful they found the search result.

Both Norvig and Sohn agree that one issue search engines will be addressing is how to present search results. Most search sites have many sections drawing on separate databases. “[We have] one look for Web sites, one for news, one for images,” Norvig says of Google’s site. “We want to find a way to combine all of that information.” Microsoft’s Sohn uses the example of combining results from Windows Live’s QnA (question and answer) section with its main search section. “We need to build the connection between the two services. It’s not a multiyear thing; it’s in the next 12 to 18 months.”

New Clout for Everyday People

Even with throttled bandwidth, people are uploading 65,000 new videos to YouTube each day. More than 52 million blogs are covering everything from the best burger in Bangalore to the latest finance scandal. Think that’s impressive? Amateurs will find new venues that will give them even greater influence.

Jay Rosen, an associate professor of journalism at New York University and writer of the PressThink blog, says that amateur and professional journalists can work together to produce some-thing greater than either could produce separately. “Bloggers are good at filtering and organizing information,” he says.

“Sometimes they get involved in [reporting on] things, but often it’s accidental. They’re collating what’s out there.” NewAssignment.net, combines the efforts of amateurs and professionals. Members will suggest, debate, and research stories; professional reporters will complete selected stories.

The Web will continue to reshape itself to serve not just professionals and geeks but everyone, whether they have an opinion, a gripe, or simply a job that needs to be done.

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