Does your company have a clue about Web 2.0?

Web 2.0 and what it can do for business

Web 2.0 might mean something different to nearly everyone familiar with the term. According to Fidelity Labs' Charles Berman, it could one day mean wider use of colorful, 3-D, graphical interfaces along the lines of what you see in virtual worlds like Second Life and popular games like World of Warcraft on business Web sites and desktops.

Berman, who stressed he was sharing his own views and not those of his employer, spoke Wednesday at the "Web 2.0, What is it and what does it mean?" event jointly organized by the Babson College Center for Information Management Studies (CIMS) and the Massachusetts Network Communications Council.

While some at first blush might think the 3-D images and avatars of such sites as Second Life are kind of silly, Berman noted that people used to think the same thing back during his days at AT&T Bell Labs years ago, when researchers were working on moving from text-based to GUI-based screens for monitoring networks. "Clearly, now that seems like the most obvious thing in the world, but at that time it wasn't," he said. "That's perspective with which I look at this and say this is a radically more expressive user interface."

Berman noted that the U.S. military is already exploiting such 3-D interfaces.

Questions remain to be answered about just how much information users can assimilate while looking at a screen, Berman said. Research also needs to be done regarding whether 3-D interfaces might appeal to a broader demographic than you first might think, given the younger, male community typically associated with gaming sites. Older people, including those who aren't able to get out and see friends as often as they used to, might find such interfaces appealing for social interaction, he said.

Fidelity itself is doing a lot of research into ways to make its assorted Web sites more usable by its older clients, and running all sorts of tests to ensure its sites are accessible to people with poor eyesight or limited dexterity. Berman and a team of Fidelity Center for Applied Technology members gave Network World editors a tour of that center last summer, highlighting whiz-bang network management interfaces, among other applications.

Berman is also high on mashups -- Web sites or applications that combine content from two or more sources -- as a promising Web 2.0 technology. Fidelity combines information about its branches with geographical information to help customers find locations via the Web. While geography-based mashups have mushroomed on the Web, Berman urged attendees to think creatively about how their organizations might combine applications to serve customers better. He pointed to Salesforce.com's AppExchange Web site as an example of a mashup, in that the software-as-a-service vendor lets third-parties build and tout their Salesforce.com-software-based creations on the site.

Also speaking at the event were Steve Mulder and Ricardo La Rosa of Internet consulting firm Molecular, which helps companies build Web sites and applications, many of which rely on Web 2.0 technologies. They said Web 2.0 consists of three things: user contributions, openness and rich interfaces (such as 3-D).

To determine whether a Web site is truly open to user contributions, they suggested asking to what degree users' presence is felt there. They cited Amazon and eBay as leaders with built-in customer ratings and reviews -- features found on many other sites now, including those of more traditional outfits like Macy's. They cited Tivo, which links to a third-party message board of users, even though some are proposing hacks of the time-shifting TV system. But they also pointed to sites like ESPN's, which are less interactive, in that users tend to be cordoned off in a section of their own.

"How can you let people rate stuff on your site?" asked Mulder, Molecular's principal consultant of user experience.

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