Web 2.0: What It Means Today

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I launched the Webware.com Web site in 2006 to cover the emerging new "Web 2.0" applications. I felt at the time that the concept of downloading software to your computer was going to die eventually, or at least diminish in importance, and I wanted to make sure that the Web publisher company I worked for, CNET, had a site to pick up the slack from Download.com, our service for finding free and trial software, when the Web 2.0 trend got serious traction. It's been three years, and we just wrapped up our third annual Webware 100 awards that run down the best Web apps. So how's the Webware trend doing?

In a nutshell: I was so, so right. I was also very, very wrong. Webware is growing, because new apps like the ones I'm about to discuss keep coming out. But Download.com is still going strong, too. There are some things that are still done better in traditional software.

In the areas where Web apps are doing well, they're just flattening downloadable software. In particular, check out the services in these categories. All of the linked apps mentioned below are 2009 Webware 100 winners:

Communication: Gmail. Need I say more? Remember how we used to pay for e-mail? We had to buy an e-mail software application, and subscribe to an e-mail service. Then free Web-based e-mail came along, but it was limited. Now there's Gmail (and competitors), offering users free and robust e-mail, with great features, hooks into other e-mail systems, and more storage than 99% of users will ever need. Need e-mail? You don't need software.

Mapping: I used to be a huge user of Microsoft Streets and Trips, a mapping and routing program for Windows. Even after MapQuest came along, I stuck with it, because it was faster and easier to use and had more features. But online mapping got better, and apps like Google Maps killed the map software category. Google Maps is fast, easy to use, knows about everything, and even has street-level views. I haven't missed my software maps for years.

Financial management: I confess that I'm still a regular user of Quicken software, but the online apps like Mint are cutting into my reasons for hanging on to it. Web-based personal finance apps hook into your bank and investment accounts, tell you what you're spending and when, and give you a ton of great analysis options, including comparisons to other users (in the aggregate). For free! And since their Web services are always working even when you're not online, they can send you alerts as things happen in your accounts, like big deposits or expenses.

Group productivity: Traditional desktop apps like Microsoft Word and Excel do a ton of things, but the truth is most users don't need all the features they offer. It's hard to argue with the productivity that comes from familiarly with these old tools (I'm typing on Word right now), but there is one big thing that Word and its competitors can't do, at least not well: Give users instant and easy collaboration on their work files.

The Google Docs word processor (another Google app, in case you haven't noticed) is basic in its standard word processing features, but it lets you collaborate with others very, very easily. From within a file, you invite whomever you want, and then they can work on the same file you are at the same time. Whenever I need to collaborate on a document, this is what I use. I use it regularly with collaborators on my podcasts like Real Deal, since we all need to be reading from the same page when we're recording, and with Google Docs, any changes we make at any time, including when we are live on the air, are visible to everyone who needs them. The Google Docs spreadsheet does the same thing.

On the other hand, there are some areas where software isn't dead yet:

Operating Systems Every now and then I hear about fancy new "Web operating systems," which are basically science experiments that do 1/10th of what a real operating system (like Windows or OS X) does, but more slowly, and that that run inside a Web browser, that's running on Windows. Too many layers. Windows and OS X and Linux are fine operating systems, for now at least.

Photo organizing: Sites like Flickr are great for sharing photos, but to really manage the deluge of photographs most people churn out from digital cameras, you really need the speed you get from a hard disk connected to a local computer.

I believe that we're moving to an era in which many computing activities will be best handled by "hybrid" apps, products with both downloadable software and a strong online component. Google Earth is a hybrid app: You need both serious software on your computer to run it, but it's useless without a live Internet connection for the data. Evernote is also a great hybrid app. The note-taking app works nicely as software, but when you use the Evernote online service to synchronize your notes database with your iPhone and the Web page to view (and edit) your notes from anywhere, it becomes even greater than the sum of its downloads. This is the way modern apps should function.
By Rafe Needleman