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So, web 3.0 huh. What’s that going to be? Lots of speculation, most of it is worthless, so might as well add my own (just as worthless) speculation.

My view of Web 3.0 is really the web as an API. Nothing really all that new, and yet potential new uses may abound.

Background

Many people nowadays seem to forget that the web is only a small portion of the internet. A specific subset of the functionality offered by a global network supporting multiple protocols on top of a basic transportation layer (TCP/IP, in case you were sleeping, or are not that technical in which case you are forgiven).

The thing is, when you come to think of it, the web is a very basic application: it’s not that much more than just a huge document repository, shared across many, many, many servers. It obviously has some very nifty features, which made it the formidable powerhouse it is today. Nothing even comes close to hyperlinks in this regard. Without those, the web would be an irrelevant piece of computing history and nobody would bother anymore.

However, the one feature that enabled the web 2.0 revolution is extensibility. Being able to build lots of nice stuff on top of the web is what allowed stuff like Ajax, RSS & the like to be added on to enable more powerful applications than just simply a static document you can read and which contains links to other potentially interesting documents.

Interestingly, as illustrated by the yesteryear trend of mashups, one of the key functionalities enabled by these extensions to the web, is the access and edition of data away from the original web pages. You can have your tweets appearing on your blogs. You can use twitter to update your facebook status via twitter. You can embed YouTube videos just about anywhere.

Consequences

For a while, the main consequence of this was web 2.0. In many ways, web 2.0 was a way of making much of networked computing browser-centric. Long gone are the days of using a text editor (or any specialized application) to edit a webpage. Wikis and other frameworks have done away with that, at least for casual users. Even for corporations, portal solutions have made lots of editing more browser-centric. Web apps à la Gmail, Google docs and the like have made even tasks like email or document edition browser-centric. That was in my view a funny move. At the end of the day, the whole web app play is about painstakingly replicating the advanced features of desktop applications in a browser. All those who cried genius about Gmail apparently never used Outlook, or Thunderbird for that matter. Both applications kick Gmail’s ass big time as far as amount and depth of functionality are concerned. But web 2.0 enthusiasts never seemed to notice.

Web 3.0, in my view, will illustrate the opposite move. For highly connected people making the most of what the web has to offer these days – and that’s a lot – the browser doesn’t really cut it anymore. A few illustrations of this:

  • Twitter is probably the best example of this. Typically, Twitter is a tool with a low signal to noise ratio. Any even half serious twitter user will follow at least dozens of people, with only a fraction of the exchanged messages being useful to him. To handle this, many Twitter users have started using Twitter clients, whether lightweight or full blown applications with powerful features.
  • Facebook is likely going the same way, if application availability is any indication.
  • Even pure webmail operators have offered, for already quite some time, the possibility to use standalone mail clients.
  • Serious RSS users have been using RSS readers for years.

 

These are only a few examples, and as such are not yet indicative of any web 3.0 trend. Web 3.0 kicks in when re-centralizing of these features occurs in a desktop client. The best example of this is the Sobees (lite or desktop) software, but I’m sure there are other examples out there.

What Sobees does (very well, I might add), is centralize your use of social networks, and further, of most Web 2.0 applications. Within one application specifically designed for this purpose (unlike the web browser or even the web page), you can access and update your Twitter, Facebook, MySpace and LinkedIn accounts – soon your RSS feeds.

Thanks to the fact the application is dedicated and custom-tailored to the purpose it is built for, it is extremely powerful and flexible, allowing you to manage all of this web-related information in exactly the way you want. You are no longer constrained by some web application designer’s view of what is a good way to access/update your data. All usability aspects such as font sizes, panel location etc. are configurable, as are themes and connectivity options. Of course, if you’re afraid of tweaking, it comes with a sane default configuration, so don’t fret.

I see this kind of application as being a big trend of the future, and a big part of web 3.0. Powerful centralization of data, tailored to a user’s needs, and, significantly, disconnected from a browser.

I think this will all become even more interesting when the disconnect from browsers becomes greater. I could typically imagine this kind of application including a simple web rendering engine in order to be able to consult links and the like directly in the application. Add email to boot, and you suddenly have a nearly central place to consult all of the most important things you could want to consult on the web. Why would you even bother directly opening a web browser?

So, amusingly enough, the future of the web may reduce the importance of the web (browser). Got to love the irony.

Dreaming of clouds?

Does this mean the browser is destined for the trash pile of history? Hardly. While I do believe it’s importance will wane in the long term, the browser is here to stay – if only because display in a simple web browser will likely always remain an internet lingua franca, and a good way to easily consult anything you want. Amusingly enough, while twitter or facebook desktop client popularity is almost certainly due to the fact people got used to clients on smartphones, I see the smartphone being a long hold-out for web browsers. In a small device, a simple barebones web browser will always remain the most efficient way of consulting a lot websites, even if that becomes less true in the desktop world.

Likewise, I believe there is a case for web-centric computing and maybe even web-centric operating systems. While I hold anyone seriously believing that Chrome OS will be massively adopted and spell out the future of operating systems to be a crackpot, I think that kind of approach will definitely have it’s uses. Think highly mobile sales people. Medical professionals. Waiters in restaurants. Policemen. The list goes on. The key here is extreme portability (in the physical sense), cases where hardware is a hindrance. But as a rule? Hardware gets more powerful and cheaper everyday, what would I really gain in giving mine up to entrust all my data and applications to some service provider? The cloud will be used – it already is – but it will be far from being the only place actual computing takes place. By a long shot.

In a nutshell

Web 3.0 will not be about the browser anymore. The browser is becoming an antiquated access method to the amount and variety of data available to us today. The browser will continue to exist of course, but only as one among several other more appealing ways of consuming the internet. Timeframe? Three to five years. The bets are on.

[UPDATE]

@spyrosm pointed out I should at least reference other existing views of web 3.0, so here are a few:

  • Semantic web. A popular view, but technical feasibility has been brought into question. My own experience leads me to believe it will never happen.
  • Web services & Software as a service. Very close to what I suggest, much more realistic in my view.
  • Virtual web/3D web. Basically a GUI overhaul with some functionality added on top. I question the business model and actual benefits. Still, there could be useful applications.
  • Cloud computing. Whatever the strengths or weaknesses of the cloud, I see the cloud addressing larger issues than just web experience.
  • The growing up of web 2.0. Basically the idea of web 2.0, with it’s growing pains taken away. A realistic view, probably, largely due to the fact that it is not overly ambitious – which is a good thing in my opinion.

 

The most interesting thing is probably the existence of many differing views, which reminds us that labels are only that, labels. In other words, don’t get too excited about buzzwords such as web 3.0, they’re only shorthand for complex phenomena, and only capture a part of the reality. Just like language itself.

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