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Is Web 2.0 the wrong path?

November 25, 2006

Bill Thompson, in a fire-breathing essay at The Register, offers a passionate technical critique of what he calls "the Web 2.0 fantasy," arguing that the "snakeoil" of "Ajaxified" interfaces and "apparently open APIs" threatens to distract developers and engineers from the real work of creating "distributed systems, scalable solutions and a network architecture that will support the needs and aspirations of the next five billion users."

"Web 2.0 marks the dictatorship of the presentation layer," he writes, "a triumph of appearance over architecture that any good computer scientist should immediately dismiss as unsustainable." He continues:

Ajax is touted as the answer for developers who want to offer users a richer client experience without having to go the trouble of writing a real application, but if the long term goal is to turn the network from a series of tubes connecting clients and servers into a distributed computing environment then we cannot rely on Javascript and XML since they do not offer the stability, scalability or effective resource discovery that we need. There is a massive difference between rewriting Web pages on the fly with Javascript and reengineering the network to support message passing between distributed objects, a difference that too many Web 2.0 advocates seem willing to ignore.

He sees "a real danger that continued investment in Web 2.0 companies will turn [Tim] O’Reilly’s dream into our nightmare. If that happens then the oligarchy who benefit most from the stale socializing of Flickr and YouTube will have held back the transition to distributed systems."

Thompson ends his essay on a weird, through-the-looking-glass note of techno-utopian yearning: "If we sort out our interfaces and interactions we may even be able to put our heads into the screen, be part of the metaverse, enter cyberspace and interact fully and equally with agents, people, sims and any other machine- or human-generated intelligence." That sounds pretty nightmarish itself. Nevertheless, Thompson's critique of the reigning Web 2.0 ideology deserves a close reading and, one hopes, will spark some constructive debate.

UPDATE: Shelley Powers says Thompson is all wet, writing of his article, "I can only see this as yet another cheap marketing ploy attached to Web 2.0." Adds Dan Farber: "A little focus on the presentation layer isn't holding up the march to the metaverse. A few more cranks of Moore's Law and the natural evolution of the Internet will be enough to overcome any 'damage' done by Web 2.0." But Sadagopan says Thompson is "spot on that there is a massive difference between rewriting Web pages on the fly with Javascript and reengineering the network to support message passing between distributed objects, a difference that too many Web 2.0 advocates seem willing to ignore."


'Weird techno-utopian yearning'? Ouch.

I plead guilty, but would argue in my defence that we have to look forward and sometimes I get carried away. OK, I'll give up on heads in screens, but please can we move on beyond Web 2.0 before it's too late?

Posted by: Bill Thompson [TypeKey Profile Page] at November 25, 2006 10:50 AM

Good to see some balance in a world that needs to develop solutions for the future when there will be significantly more users online.

Imagine when two sixths of the world is online, pipes are bursting and users take "amazing" functionality like photo sharing, mapping and tagging for the trivial excersises they are. Important and popular but hardly the ultimate utilization of the connectivity the Internet provides.

Adding layers of AJAX or LAMP, onto the document paradigm of Internet browsers, is not enough to create the applications that solve the real world needs of a mainstream audience.

Posted by: George Ruul [TypeKey Profile Page] at November 25, 2006 11:31 AM

Have you see Jeff Han's multi-touch screen project - it certainly feels like your head is going into the screen. And I definitely agree we need deeper, more enterprisey application implementations.

Posted by: David Terrar [TypeKey Profile Page] at November 25, 2006 12:28 PM

Anybody with any sense stopped using the Web 2.0 term months ago, but the key idea of Web 2.0 as set out by Tim O'Reilly is the fact that we are trying to build an architecture of participation that can hopefully lead to some form of actionable collective intelligence (No - not the semantic web!), and yet what Bill rails against in the Reg piece is AJAXy interfaces and the tyranny of the interface layer. Where does Tim O'Reilly say it is all about AJAX? I think Bill is hitting a false target he himself has set up.

Besides, as I pointed out in an as-yet-unmoderated comment on Bill's piece, his Tito self-management socialism analogy applies much better to Yahoo than O'Reilly.

The architecture of distributed computing that Bill mentions is actually not a million miles away from what Tim O'Reilly means by Web 2.0, and what many of us are already working towards.

Posted by: Lee Bryant [TypeKey Profile Page] at November 25, 2006 01:13 PM

This is a red herring.

It is not the job of a Web developer to worry about the tubes. Infrastructure is the sole domain on the engineers, the IT professionals. Web developers use available tools to make the best user-centered applications they can (ideally). Let me emphasize: "available tools." If AJAX is the available tool, then that is what they are going to use. If you want them to use a better tool, give it to them.

Posted by: Howard Owens [TypeKey Profile Page] at November 25, 2006 02:18 PM

There are multiple frustrations all jostling each other for precedence here. All of this stems from the oft-discussed confusion over what Web 2.0 means, but let's at least differentiate the social aspect of Web 2.0 from the technology for the sake of this discussion.

One can argue about exploiting user-created content, and one can argue about technology. I argue about technology here, and, while the two certainly impact each other, I think there is good reason to treat them separately at times. Mr. Thompson's essay seems to be taking frustrations with the social suggestions of Web 2.0 out on the technology, which doesn't really help one reason about either one.

Posted by: Anthony Cowley [TypeKey Profile Page] at November 25, 2006 03:19 PM

Agreeing with Lee. I don't think O'reilly's version of Web 2.0 includes much Ajax. APIs and participation, yes, which I do think are important.

Posted by: pwb [TypeKey Profile Page] at November 25, 2006 03:20 PM

Stripped of the flashy presentation (pun intended?) I think the point of the article is that interactive user interfaces shouldn't be viewed as equivalent to building complex distributed systems.

AJAX is about continuous communication between a server and client. Distributed systems are about many clients communicating with each other, and sometimes also as a server.

But building reliable distributed systems is a very hard engineering problem compared to an interactive interface.

But this is much duller than "Communism!" 1/2 :-).

Posted by: Seth Finkelstein [TypeKey Profile Page] at November 25, 2006 10:30 PM

Bill Thompson's view is a bit too black and white for this gray world that we live in. He seems to be saying that Web 2.0 / AJAX = BAD. In reality they are good for some things, and not appropriate for others. No single technology (or even a group of technologies, like AJAX) will ever be the “perfect” solution to every problem. We need to keep this in perspective and focus on using the right technology for each job. Dismissing whole categories of technologies as hype without acknowledging that they have legitimate uses is not a productive discussion.

Posted by: Dawn Foster [TypeKey Profile Page] at November 26, 2006 12:36 PM

Thompson's spastic screed has a few inherent assumptions which, examined closely, undermine his purpose & betray a queer anxiety.

"...Ajaxified snakeoil..."

Desperate & extreme. This implies Ajax apps or Web 2.0 do not achieve anything or that their achievements are illusory. I beg to differ. They add value to the User Interface and make certain applications viable where they were not before.

"...magical incantation...bring...funding..."

Facetiousness revealing jealousy.

"...dictatorship of the presentation layer..."

Assumes developers are finished.

If Thompson is primarily afraid of Google's, Amazon's and Yahoo!'s control of the web -- not illigitimate concerns -- then there are different and more effective & more durable ways to approach this argument.

Posted by: Sam Hiser [TypeKey Profile Page] at November 26, 2006 02:21 PM

Constructive debate is difficult with such a tabloid style article - especially when it assumes agreement from all "good" computer scientists (providing the corollary that disagreement makes you a "poor" computer scientist).

Web 2.0 is a vision beyond simple interface development (from open data to commodisation of operating environments to social participation to rich interfaces to new business models to a data centric view) and does not prescribe operational details, which are best dealt with through emergent standards and behaviour.

Bill's general thesis is that we should stop all this, as there is the real chance of it turning into a nightmare. That's a mantra against the melting pot of human creativity.

Is this a case of the kettle calling the pot black?

Posted by: Simon at November 27, 2006 11:39 AM

I ask myself how Marshal Tito steers his subjects.
See my small cartoon.


Posted by: Oliver Widder [TypeKey Profile Page] at November 27, 2006 06:22 PM

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