What next for the Web?

nobody really knows, but Richard MacManus has some interesting hypotheses.

In 2009 we’re seeing more products based on open, structured data e.g. Wolfram Alpha. We’re seeing more real-time apps e.g. Twitter, OneRiot. And we’re seeing better filters e.g. FriendFeed (and Facebook, which copies FriendFeed – er, I mean is inspired by).

In a nutshell here are some of the new or noticeable trends that we're seeing on the 2009 Web:

* Open data

* Structured data -> smarter

* Filtering content

* Real-time

* Personalization

* Mobile (location-based, so you could say that's smarter use of data too)

* Internet of Things (the Web in real-world objects)

There’s also an interesting embedded slideshow on the page.

Another Wikipedia hoax

Another case of an old story. Bet it gets used by steam media as an example of wikipedia failings and nobody wonders what ‘reputable’ newspapers were doing reprinting it without checking.

A WIKIPEDIA hoax by a 22-year-old Dublin student resulted in a fake quote being published in newspaper obituaries around the world.

The quote was attributed to French composer Maurice Jarre who died at the end of March.

It was posted on the online encyclopedia shortly after his death and later appeared in obituaries published in the Guardian, the London Independent, on the BBC Music Magazine website and in Indian and Australian newspapers.

“One could say my life itself has been one long soundtrack. Music was my life, music brought me to life, and music is how I will be remembered long after I leave this life. When I die there will be a final waltz playing in my head, that only I can hear,” Jarre was quoted as saying.

However, these words were not uttered by the Oscar-winning composer but written by Shane Fitzgerald, a final-year undergraduate student studying sociology and economics at University College Dublin.

Mr Fitzgerald said he placed the quote on the website as an experiment when doing research on globalisation.

Encarta RIP — the NYT’s belated obit

This is odd — weeks after Microsoft announced that it was abandoning Encarta, the NYT publishes a piece by Randall Stross.

IN 1985, when Microsoft was turned down by Britannica, the conventional wisdom in the encyclopedia business held that a sales force that knocked on doors was indispensable, that encyclopedias were “sold, not bought.” Encarta showed that with a low-enough price — it was selling for $99 when Britannica introduced its own CD-ROM encyclopedia in 1994 for $995 — it could become the best-selling encyclopedia.

But the triumph was short-lived. Microsoft soon learned that the public would no longer pay for information once it was available free. Other information businesses, of course, are now confronting the same fact, but without the Windows and Office franchises to fall back upon.

Randall Stross is a good reporter, so my hunch is that this is a piece that’s been lying on the shelf for a while until a quiet news day arrived.

40 years on

Today, the Open University has added a new album to its iTunesU site to mark the fact that the packet-switched network, like the OU itself, is 40 years old this year. The album is a compilation of interviews we’ve done over the years with various Internet pioneers like Vint Cerf, Don Davies and Ray Tomlinson (the inventor of email). The whole shebang is headed by an overview interview with me. Sufferers from insomnia can find it here.

The Web vs the Cloud

Interesting thought.

The Web was perfectly named. Every point connecting to other points, not always directly, but your requests and data would get there. And even if part of the web were to be destroyed or taken down in some way, then the remainder would exist. Cloud Computing will retain this aspect of the web design as its backbone form of communication. However, the Cloud Computing concept is also perfectly named.

Whereas with the Web we could, from any point on the web, see pretty much everything else, with the Cloud we will not be able to know what’s taking place in the system, just as we cannot see today what exists inside of clouds. They are murky, dense objects that reveal almost no depth at all. In fact, if you’ve ever seen airplanes fly in and out of clouds, you know that once they are a few feet on the inside they’re completely obscured. And it’s the same with Cloud Computing.

We will have access points to access these future Cloud Computing systems, the ones which from all outward appearances will seem like a regular website. However, the evolution of computing power over time has mandated (from a business perspective) that the available data be mined for usable information which can then, in some way, relate to profit — either through better services offered to users, or for marketing and sales revenues through more directly targeted campaigns.

While everything on the outside appears to be as it was before, what’s happening on the inside of the new cloud-computing systems will be completely different. And I have, as of yet, to see a comprehensive analysis of how our privacy, our data security and our online lives will be affected by such a system.

To me, Cloud Computing models offer the greatest possibility for data control–and the abuse of that control–that I’ve ever seen.

Amazon: power – and responsibility

This morning’s Observer column.

When Jeff Bezos founded Amazon, his single strategic goal was to “get big quick”. His hunch was that, in online retailing, size and scale would be the ultimate determinants of success. And his vision was never limited to books – they were the obvious starting point, because they are goods that people could buy without having to handle them. But Bezos had much more ambitious plans. He wanted to sell everything that could be sold online. He saw Amazon as potentially the Wal-Mart of the web.

Last week we saw two very different illustrations of how close he has come to achieving his goal…

The Wikipedia ‘debate’: time to move on

This morning’s Observer column.

Unwillingness to entertain the notion that Wikipedia might fly is a symptom of what the legal scholar James Boyle calls ‘cultural agoraphobia’ – our prevailing fear of openness. Like all phobias it’s irrational, so is immune to evidence. I’m tired of listening to brain-dead dinner-party complaints about how ‘inaccurate’ Wikipedia is. I’m bored to death by endless accounts of slurs or libels suffered by a few famous individuals at the hands of Wikipedia vandals. And if anyone ever claims again that all the entries in Wikipedia are written by clueless amateurs, I will hit them over the head with a list of experts who curate material in their specialisms. And remind them of Professor Peter Murray-Rust’s comment to a conference in Oxford: “The bit of Wikipedia that I wrote is correct.”

Of course Wikipedia has flaws, of course it has errors: show me something that doesn’t. Of course it suffers from vandalism and nutters who contribute stuff to it. But instead of complaining about errors, academics ought to be in there fixing them. Wikipedia is one of the greatest inventions we have. Isn’t it time we accepted it? Microsoft has.

Microsoft Encarta succumbs to Wikipedia

Well, it was a long time coming, but here it is.

Do you remember what came in between printed encyclopedias and Wikipedia Wikipedia reviews? For many, the answer is Microsoft Encarta, which was distributed starting in the 90s via CD-ROM and more recently on the Web via MSN. Today, Microsoft announced that it’s discontinuing Encarta later this year, offering symbolic confirmation that Wikipedia is the world’s definitive reference guide.

Microsoft acknowledges as such in an FAQ they’ve setup explaining the move and what existing Encarta customers can expect. The company writes, “Encarta has been a popular product around the world for many years. However, the category of traditional encyclopedias and reference material has changed. People today seek and consume information in considerably different ways than in years past.”

That’s quite the understatement. As PaidContent points out, the crowd-edited Wikipedia boasts 2.7 million entries in English versus just 42,000 for Encarta. Need further confirmation of why Wikipedia is simply a better model? News of Encarta’s discontinuation has already reached the product’s entry on Wikipedia.

Increasing online giving by intelligent design

I’m not an unqualified admirer of Jakob Neilsen’s work, but this Alertbox post makes a lot of sense. What he was trying to find out is what affects online donors’ decisions

We asked participants what information they want to see on non-profit websites before they decide whether to donate. Their answers fell into 4 broad categories, 2 of which were the most heavily requested:

* The organization’s mission, goals, objectives, and work.

* How it uses donations and contributions.

That is: What are you trying to achieve, and how will you spend my money?

Sadly, only 43% of the sites we studied answered the first question on their homepage. Further, only a ridiculously low 4% answered the second question on the homepage. Although organizations typically provided these answers somewhere within the site, users often had problems finding this crucial information.

As we’ve long known, what people say they want is one thing. How they actually behave when they’re on websites is another. Of the two, we put more credence in the latter. We therefore analyzed users’ decision-making processes as they decided which organizations to support.

In choosing between 2 charities, people referred to 5 categories of information. However, an organization’s mission, goals, objectives, and work was by far the most important. Indeed, it was 3.6 times as important as the runner-up issue, which was the organization’s presence in the user’s own community.

(Information about how organizations used donations did impact decision-making, but it was far down the list relative to its second-place ranking among things that people claimed that they'd be looking for.)

People want to know what a non-profit stands for, because they want to contribute to causes that share their ideals and values. Most people probably agree that, for example, it’s good to help impoverished residents of developing countries or patients suffering from nasty diseases. Many organizations claim to do these very things. The question in a potential donor’s mind is how the organization proposes to help. Often, sites we studied failed to answer this question clearly — and lost out on donations as a result…