) bookstore manager who coordinates Web site development work at software startup Indimensions Systems Inc. in Kitchener, Ont. "I stopped watching TV a month and a half ago. If I didn't have to eat, pee, and have sex, probably I'd have no need for the 3-D world."
O.K., so this self-described "sick Mac freak" clearly has plunged a wee bit far into the Internet's deep end. But she's on to something that's about to dawn on the rest of us: A whole new Web is emerging from the wilds of cyberspace. It's no longer all about idly surfing and passively reading, listening, or watching. It's about doing: sharing, socializing, collaborating, and, most of all, creating. Says Eckart Walther, Yahoo! Inc.'s (YHOO
) vice-president for product management: "It's the second coming of the Web."
And this time, it's Your Web. No longer content to be merely viewers and consumers, people increasingly are taking an active part in creating their online lives. With its longtime tagline, "The network is the computer," Sun Microsystems Inc. (SUNW
) made the case that computing transcended hardware. Sun President Jonathan Schwartz thinks another crucial shift is under way: "The network is now your computer."
At many new Web sites and services, the creative energy of countless souls virtually crackles off the screen. They're cobbling together their own services from customizable Web sites and Lego-style pieces of Web software. By the millions, they're gathering and disseminating their own news with blogs and podcasts, creating customized article and photo feeds from their favorite sites and even annotating them with helpful text tags that others can search for on the Web site del.icio.us. They're producing their own entertainment on video, social-networking, game, and photo-sharing sites such as Yahoo's Flickr. At MySpace.com, some 21 million monthly visitors spend up to several hours a day sharing their thoughts, photos, and music with friends on personalized home pages. Ditto at Cyworld, which claims almost a third of South Korea's 48 million people as members.
"The Web isn't so much a place anymore," explains Ross Mayfield, CEO of Palo Alto (Calif.)-based startup Socialtext Inc., which offers services to create collaborative Web sites called wikis. It's more of a doorway into services, from the user-written reference site Wikipedia to the community organizing service Meetup to the folksy classifieds site Craigslist. As Mayfield noted in a recent blog post, "They Google (GOOG
), Flickr, blog, contribute to Wikipedia, Socialtext it, Meetup, post, subscribe, feed, annotate, and above all share. In other words, the Web is increasingly less about places and other nouns, but verbs."Harnessing Change
This potent new do-it-yourself trend is shaking up a raft of industries, from software and telecommunications to media, marketing, and entertainment. As people individually and collectively program their own Web, they're increasingly calling the shots. In the process, they're challenging the way media organizations cover and distribute news and entertainment, the way advertisers target pitches at them, and the way tech companies design and sell their products and services. Most of all, they're rapidly changing their minds about what they will pay for and how. That's disrupting long-established business models, from newspaper subscriptions to television advertising.
These sweeping changes are why BusinessWeek's first-ever Best of the Web Special Report is full of names that may be unfamiliar. The group blog PostSecret lets people reveal their innermost thoughts in often poignant mock postcards that add up to a community art project. At DonorsChoose, schoolteachers post requests for resources they need, and visitors can choose which they want to fund, helping to raise $3.9 million for 223,000 students. In the spirit of Your Web, we also took a stab at tapping the wisdom of the online crowds. Our survey drew more than 16,000 responses -- and a lot of great tips, such as the collaborative tech news site Digg.com and the tasteful shopping blog MightyGoods.
The new imperatives of Web 2.0, as many call it, will present challenges not only for Web giants such as eBay (EBAY
), Yahoo, and Google but for some of mainstream tech's biggest leaders as well. That's because these new Web services are rapidly erasing the line between the Web and desktop software. "Applications are no longer software artifacts," notes Net pioneer Tim O'Reilly, CEO of tech publisher O'Reilly Media Inc. "They're ongoing services."
As a result, even software king Microsoft Corp. (MSFT
) is seeing core franchises such as its Office software attacked by Web mail services, wikis, and JotSpot Inc.'s do-it-yourself software tools, which let you quickly create customized mini-programs such as a shared to-do list for a corporate department. As a result, the Web is even starting to challenge Windows as the foundation on which people are creating software -- which is now morphing into services on the Web.
Certainly, the participatory nature of Your Web presents new opportunities for savvy tech suppliers, too. The nimblest ones are already harnessing their customers' expertise, open source software-style. "We're starting to see our customers build new applications on their own, on top of our platform," says Marc Benioff, CEO of Salesforce.com Inc. (CRM
), which sells Web services for salespeople to manage customer relationships. In fact, it recently debuted a plan for an online marketplace for corporate software that runs with Salesforce's service (BW -- Sept. 19).Power Tools
Other industries may have a tougher time than tech. Media and entertainment companies, which have profited by becoming gatekeepers, sit right in the crosshairs of Web do-it-yourselfers. After all, who knows better what you like than you? If you can use the Web to find exactly the service, article, video, or podcast you want -- and maybe even create it yourself, or with friends -- who needs networks or newspapers or (gulp) magazines? That's why sites and services as varied as your favorite blog or podcast, Google, Craigslist, and MySpace are stealing subscribers and advertisers alike from traditional media, newspaper classifieds, radio, and television. Says Yahoo Chief Technology Officer Farzad Nazem: "It's not about mass media, it's about My Media."
One reason all this is coming to a head now is the maturing of a host of Internet technologies. Really Simple Syndication, or RSS, lets people subscribe to blogs and other sites, so they get customized bundles of material sent to them as they're created -- say, all the stories about Hurricane Katrina from The New York Times. A set of programming technologies collectively dubbed Ajax is also ending the World Wide Wait, making Web applications almost as fast as traditional desktop programs. Some enterprising folks are playing Web deejay. HousingMaps.com injects housing listings from Craigslist into Google Maps, so people can visualize a rental's location.
Pretty soon, you won't need to be a programmer to tailor the Web precisely as you like it. Already, Web browser software lets you add functions, such as a Google toolbar, an ad blocker, or a weather forecasting button, to your screen. And an intriguing new program called Greasemonkey lets you add mini-programs that customize the way a particular Web site looks and works on your browser. Install the Greasemonkey add-on Book Burro, for instance, and every time you visit a book page on Amazon.com (AMZN
), a list of prices for that book on other sites pops up. Says Siva Kumar, president of the shopping search engine FatLens: "Where one site starts and another ends will increasingly be seamless."
The dizzying array of new choices certainly has the potential to overwhelm casual Web surfers and time-strapped workers alike. "The average user is too busy" to mess around a lot, says Jakob Nielsen, a Web design expert with consultant Nielsen Norman Group. "They just want to get work done." Yet that's precisely the reason many of the new Web applications have taken off. "It's all about doing things," says Jason Fried, president of 37Signals, creator of Basecamp and Backpack, two wildly popular Web services that help small businesses and individuals manage projects and to-do lists. "Cool wears off. Usefulness never does." By Robert D. Hof in San Mateo, Calif.