Versioning and platforms

Fred Wilson says that the definition of “Web 2.0″ has become so hyped up that it’s borderline worthless as a term, but that he likes the early definition “the web as a platform.”

I don’t disagree with this as a technical description of why the web is such a powerful enabler; but the thing is, it seems equally accurate for “Web 1.0.” Web 2.0 is a new “version,” and I think that versioning is always, for better or for worse, more of a marketing thing than a technical thing: sometimes it means lots of technical changes, sometimes not; but what it always means is that you’re claiming that enough new value is being created that you want to “re-launch” or offer an upgrade.

A classic instance of this is when Skype got a lot of attention and Yahoo “re-launched” Yahoo Messenger (v6.0) as “Yahoo Messenger with Voice” (v7.0). The fact is, Yahoo Messenger had offered PC-to-PC *and* PC-to-phone calls for years! It was just not very well-marketed, and so not too many people knew about it. In this case the new version was just a way to remind people that “hey, we have that stuff too!” Of course, a bunch of improvements and small new features were also included, but that’s not really what the new version was about.

In the case of “Web 2.0,” I think we’re also talking about what is primarily a marketing term: I like Paul Graham’s interpretation, that it really just means “using the web the way it was meant to be used.” There are a few new features like RSS and the ping infrastructure, but the real reason for the new version is to say “it’s worth taking another look, really cool things are happening.”

Regarding platforms, looking at the comments to Fred’s post, it seems to me that people might be mixing up two separate ways a company might build value:

(1) by building a new application on an existing platform
(2) by building a new platform

The word “platform” in software usually means a standard infrastructure you can build applications on. The web is such a platform, and one that to an increasing degree supplants the PC OS. Applications like Google search and del.icio.us tagging are of the first kind: they are built on this platform, “the web as platform.” But Google and del.icio.us APIs, and for that matter eBay and RoR, are of the second kind: they are *new* platforms. Moreover, they are *proprietary* platforms.

A question that a lot of people seem to be asking is, “should I consider building a new application on a new, proprietary platform?” The standard answer is that you can, but this consists of making a pretty big bet:

– that the platform will become ubiquitous
– that the fees charged by the company owning the ubiquitous platform will not be onerous
– that the company owning the ubiquitous platform will not decide to compete with you, and do so by altering the platform to give itself an advantage

But I think that this answer might be changing. This brings me to what I think is a second aspect to “Web 2.0,” a new value that is not so much a technical improvement, it is more of a social and economic shift. I’ll have to save that for the next post…

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