October 8, 2004

Web 2.0: Possibly the best IT business conference of 2004

Author: Chris Preimesberger

SAN FRANCISCO -- It's not too often that you get up from your chair, and someone like Yahoo! co-founder Jerry Yang -- who couldn't find a seat previously -- comes over and replaces you. That was emblematic of the first Web 2.0 Conference, staged by O'Reilly Media and MediaLive International and which concluded a three-day run Thursday at the Hotel Nikko. There were stars everywhere you looked.

In between sessions, I overheard a number of people saying this was the best IT business conference they'd attended in 2004. "It's all meat, no fluff," was a common description. Everybody on the program had already shown leadership and success in some aspect of the new media world, had something valuable to contribute, and seemed to be in a good mood. This was a fitting start to the "second generation" of the World Wide Web, now 10 years old.

The program, a virtual Who's Who of Internet commerce, included Jeff Bezos (Amazon.com), Mark Cuban (HDNet), Marc Benioff (Salesforce.com), venture capitalist John Doerr, Mitch Kapor (Open Source Applications Foundation), Marc Andreessen (Netscape, Opsware), IT stock analyst Mary Meeker, Stanford law professor Lawrence Lessig, CNET Networks and Grand Central founder Halsey Minor, Yahoo's Yang and COO Dan Rosensweig, and a list of others.

Most conferences are launching pads for new products. Web 2.0 served that purpose but also was the introduction point for some new companies, such as Sxip Network (see note and pronunciation below) and SpikeSource, which provides enterprise support services for open source software. Joe Kraus, one of the four founders of Excite, introduced his new startup, JotSpot, which calls itself "the first application-wiki company."

Here are some bullet points of useful information from the conference.

There was a lot of talk about how money can be made from blogging. Most people agreed that there really isn't a good business model yet in that space but that there would be soon.

Speculation centered on both Google and Yahoo!, which are both testing the waters in the browser business. Google and Yahoo! browsers seem like no-brainers. But Yang just laughed at the suggestion, and some Google folks giggled away the same question at the lavish opening-night dessert party thrown by the newly-gone-public search engine company. But the key fact: Nobody said no.

In fact, Andreessen -- who knows a little bit about browsers -- was asked that very question Wednesday in a conversation with Rosensweig and program host John Battelle. "I don't know if it would be their core competencies to go into the browser wars," he said, "but they certainly could if they wanted to. They have the muscle. Browser innovation as we know it pretty much ended in 1998. One of the most amazing things over the last six or seven years is watching Microsoft basically get a monopoly over the browser with IE and then not use it. I can't figure that one out," Andreessen said.

Host John Battelle, Marc Andreessen, and Dan Rosensweig share a laugh at Web 2.0. Photo: Derrick Story

"There is a new opportunity for alternative products, and that's why Mozilla and Opera are looking good now," he said. "But Microsoft is certainly going to respond competitively to these things, I can guarantee that. I think it is going to get very interesting in this space over the next two or three years."
Google offered rare insight into its closely guarded Linux server farm by previewing its next steps to improve Web search -- all built around clustering technology. Peter Norvig, Google's director of search quality, said the company is "trying to go just beyond keywords and the linking structure of the Web and get behind the deeper meaning."

Norvig demonstrated a clustering project called Named Entities Abstraction, in which Google researchers analyze the huge Web index and extract individual entities, such as the name of a sports team or company, from content and then decipher their relationship to each another. Researchers look for ways to break down sentences by identifying a phrase like "such as" and grabbing the names that follow it. The idea is to not only to identify the name but also its multiple meanings, so that a name such as "Java" can be associated both with coffee and with the computer language, Norvig said.

Rosensweig revealed that Yahoo! plans to start offering advertising spots on RSS (Really Simple Syndication) news feeds used by private Web site owners and bloggers. Rosensweig mentioned the RSS ad plan after being asked whether Yahoo's Overture division is going to use its sponsored links to include news feeds. "Absolutely," Rosensweig answered. "We do two things at Yahoo!: We're in the advertising business, and in the business of creating incremental value."

"Walled garden," meaning a personal lock-in of data and services, was the new catch-term of the conference. At least nine people said this from the stage during the show.

The Sxip Network was launched, but nobody knew how to pronounce it at first (it's pronounced "skip"). Sxip is an acronym for Simple eXtensible Identity Protocol, which gives individuals "the ability to create and maintain online personas, facilitating single sign-on and informed attribute exchange."

Bezos described Amazon's homepage as "Web 1.0" because "humans created the content, but machines placed it." He said that "Web 2.0 is about making the Internet useful for computers."

A new study by the Pew Internet & American Life Project and cited by conference chairman John Battelle says that more than half of all Web site visitors leave something behind at the sites they visit -- whether by providing personal information, taking surveys, or offering feedback in some other way.

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