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Observations from the MIT/Stanford VLAB Event on Web 3.0

I was able to attend the first half of the MIT/Stanford VLAB’s event on Web 3.0 and it was a good overview, in my opinion. I wasn’t able to stay for the entire thing, but here are a few thoughts and observations I had during my time at the event.

Market-driven innovation as a pre-cursor to top-down APIs. I thought Robert Cook from Freebase had a good comment about how APIs evolve in practice. He cited the way in which the Facebook API, and the functionality it offered, became the model for the OpenSocial and other competitive social networking APIs of late. This argument is something that has always made sense to me – the best way to create a standard or platform is to become the dominant application in the category. Developers and others always want to go where the users are – dominant companies are in a unique position to drive the development of standards, be they platforms or APIs. With the acronym soup of APIs and standards associated with the semantic web, having a market-driven approach might help move the ball forward here.

If you think Web 2.0 is poorly defined, web 3.0 is even tougher. For all of the complaints around how poorly-defined the term “web 2.0” is, the situation for web 3.0 and the semantic web is much tougher. It was clear to me that the folks on stage (and perhaps the industry as a whole) was struggling to come up with a definition for the space that was both expansive enough in terms of vision and easy enough for folks to grasp. Until we have better example applications of semantic web technologies in the wild, I think this will continue to be a challenge.

Does Web 3.0 Need More Marketing or A Few Exits? It wasn’t too long ago that a lot of folks wondered what web 2.0 was. Once you had Flickr and delicious, you can say that “web 2.0 is stuff like Flickr and delicious” and it became easier to define the category by the shared attributes of companies that had achieved some level of success. With YouTube, Photobucket, and others, it became easier and easier to define the category based on the common elements of companies that had been acquired – easy sharing, tagging, slick UI, use of AJAX, etc. The alternative approach would be to have a stronger marketing (product marketing) push among web 3.0 companies to better define the category. Given what I heard from the panelists on stage, my hunch is that the former will be a better path than the latter.

How much of the web 3.0 innovation will be consumer visible? The thing that struck me most before I left the event was the basic notion that this world of machine-to-machine communication that will characterize the web 3.0 world might not be consumer visible. The nice thing about web 2.0 was that many of the innovations were visible. Flickr, Photobucket, and SmugMug were visibly different from Ofoto and Shutterfly in terms of look and feel. Oddpost was a very different email experience than the classic Hotmail and Yahoo interfaces of the day. Having consumer-visible differentiation makes it much easier for consumers to “get” what’s different. A lot of the use cases that folks mentioned for web 3.0 were not consumer-visible applications. It will be interesting to see how web 3.0 develops if most of the semantic web innovation happens in a way that isn’t visible to consumers.