There were a number of small companies at ETech launching or promoting their wares. Unfortunately, it’s hard to work up much excitement for them. The so-called Google effect tends to dampen interest in anything new until it is introduced or acquired by Google or one of their competitors. Today, this reality is often reflected by the companies themselves who promote features for users to take all their data and content and easily move it to another provider.
In addition, many of these startups don’t even seem to seriously aspire to becoming real companies; instead, they consist of some bits of technology and a few programmers. Many do not seem to have a plan other than to get acquired. In any case, they are working to show off some innovative features that are likely to find their way into products or services you use, one way or another. Thanks to the public beta concept started by firms like Flickr and Google, nobody hesitates to launch a company around some code that three people built in three months and then gather user-driven content to build the company from there. It’s all the rage now. It provides a good environment for experimentation and play, but it doesn’t help most of us to get things done. However, there were a few ideas or implementations we liked enough to describe here, and there are more links at the end of the report can be used to explore further. Those few stand-outs aside, there are just so many new sites and ideas that it’s hard to spend the time needed to fully explore them all.
We liked reBlog, a non-profit technology project rather than a company. Their software is aimed at republishing blog items to bring them together. The massive fragmentation of blogs is a difficult problem to grapple with. Tags are catching on and should be a big help, but reBlog allows for the thoughtful aggregation of the best content. All items are reposted with attribution, and the content owners do have to agree to allow it; so far, it appears to be working. reBlog can be found at www.reblog.org and an example of the system in action can be seen at the iVillage-owned property http://voices.gardenweb.com.
Amazon formally introduced their “Mechanical Turk.” It is a bizarre web service offering that people have been testing since late last year. The idea is to harness the power of millions of users to perform minor tasks in exchange for small payments. It’s proposed that there are classes of problems like “indicate if there is a human in this picture” that are very easy for people but quite hard for computers. By farming out these tasks, they can be done accurately and efficiently. Obvious potential uses include surveys, translation and transcription services, and data entry. We played with the system a little and have set ourselves up to test the concept with some different types of work. Exposing human processing power as a web service is an interesting idea, but we will have to see how this plays out. When combined with other Amazon web services including their new raw storage service (S3) and the recent opening up of their Alexa web information engine, Amazon is building a potentially powerful collection of offerings. It’s not yet clear how much impact these applications will have on the business but their efforts are encouraging.
Adobe is pushing their already strong and ubiquitous web technology further ahead with FLEX. Doing applications with AJAX, ActionScript and Flash enables a high level of client functionality that is very accessible. Adobe is clearly on a path to deliver a rich set of development and deployment tools for the client environment. More generally, they are claiming that, while the server side has benefited from SOA/ESB, the client side continues to suffer from a lack of architecture. We agree, especially when adding the mobile and device space to the traditional PC environment. A service-oriented client architecture would include a standard stack of services—a data model, services, messaging and persistence which is cross-OS, cross-browser and has well defined patterns of use. More information regarding FLEX, ActionScript and related tools can be found at http://labs.adobe.com.
We continue to be intrigued by Adobe’s innovations. Their business process automation tools caught our eye a few months ago. However, today it doesn’t seem that the company is coordinating well between their client-side initiatives around Macromedia and the more enterprise-friendly technology from Adobe.
Microsoft sent Ray Ozzie; he tried to inspire a roomful of alpha geeks to think about Microsoft in a Web 2.0 context. Unfortunately, the best he could come up with was the PC clipboard metaphor extended to the web to allow content to be “piped” from one application to another. This is conceptually the old UNIX pipe model that made the command line such a powerful tool in the hands of the technical user. Ozzie had a working demonstration of the “LiveClipboard,” and it did allow calendar events to be added from multiple sources. It also promises to simplify operations for naïve users who want to take advantage of RSS feeds and other web content within their traditional view of the world. We think the success of microformats will marginalize the need for a clipboard metaphor; at least, we hope so.
Microsoft also showed their new version of search; it has better widgets, is more customizable and uses AJAX. The ability to create and save search macros was a very good feature—similar to Rollyo. Using this technique, one could search a specific array of web sites rather than the web in general. A tabbed approach to contexts is also very useful for sorting search results. The local version of the search engine had a cool feature in which the user drives a virtual car down a route and sees images corresponding to the view out the front and side windows of the car. Like most such features, we expect it will work well in a few choice areas and poorly, if at all, everywhere else. There appear to be enough new innovative features coming in Microsoft Live Search to get some attention and even spur some usage. It’s too early to know if there will be any shift in the market, but that’s something we will certainly be watching.
Combined with their release of Vista, will it be enough to break Microsoft out of their trading range. The Xbox360 didn’t do it, and the stock has had a $27 handle on it for some time now. There is some real enthusiasm and excitement around Vista, and Microsoft will be making plenty of noise about it during their developer conference this March in Las Vegas. Unfortunately, the recently admitted Vista delays will likely dampen the potential momentum. In fact, one wonders if another company like Google, Red Hat or even IBM would consider acquiring a company like www.thinkfree.com to further erode Microsoft’s prospects.
Yahoo! happily touts their recent acquisitions to show how hip they are to Web 2.0. Unfortunately, their presentation doesn’t play very well with the group attending ETech. Of course, they now own Flickr, and it has a momentum that seemingly cannot be stopped. Their own developments, however, are somewhat disappointing. There is growing respect and support for Yahoo! Maps and more willingness to evaluate Yahoo API offerings for potential mashups. However, they seem to be taking quite a long time to deliver on the API promises they have been making since OSCON 2005 last August.
Yahoo! is in the odd position of being run by a CEO who increasingly positions them as a media company, but who, at the same time, can’t seem to stand the technological success of Google ever since it has embarrassed them by topping several market-leading offerings in which they thought were safe from competition. Yahoo! has decided to play catch-up with a large increase in R&D spending and an acquisition spree. They will certainly be successful to a degree, but it’s hard to determine how their strategy really differs from that of Microsoft and Google.
IBM is trying to get involved in the Web 2.0 space with a Do-It-Yourself IT message and a toolkit to help build mashups. ETech die-hards would say that this doesn’t mean much because this idea and open source implementations started in 2003 and became widely available last year—as shown by many presenters then. However, the IBM presentation certainly underscored the notion that commercial infrastructure stacks will be brought to the surface of the Web 2.0 technology swirl. IBM will probably keep putting out what they can to support open source and Eclipse, rather than putting together a tightly integrated approach of their own.
Tibco made an appearance at the conference as a sponsor to advertise their General Interface; it is built to exploit AJAX. It’s not something that jumps out at you from their website, but it shows that they are trying. We took a quick look to see how washed out TIBX was at this point, but the company enjoys a 1.4B EV and a 3x EV/Revenue multiple. It’s potentially interesting, but not enough to know how far it will take Tibco.