Whenever Web 2.0 is mentioned I’m reminded of the gag: “Do you believe in astrology?” Answer: “I don’t even believe in astronomy.”

What percentage of your budget have you allocated to Web 2.0 technologies? Which department in your business has the most Web 2.0 favourable bias? Unless you are a media company, I’ll wager the answer to the last question is marketing. Will your marketing benefit from social networking, blogs, user generated content, Wikis? Fine, these things exist. But if even Mike Lynch, CEO of Autonomy, admits to being confused about Web 2.0, “it is not a technology it is about information exchange”, then we should question everything about it.

What it all means

If Web 2.0 does exist – which is becoming less clear with each passing internet day – questions remain. What is it and is it going to influence IT strategy any more than short-wave radio did telecommunications?
First off, a definition. Web 2.0 enthusiasts, may think using Wikipedia as a source for this is ironic, but it’s not and they’re wrong. According to Wikipedia, Tim O’Reilly, the man whose firm is responsible for the phrase, provided a compact definition of Web 2.0 in 2006: “Web 2.0 is the business revolution in the computer industry caused by the move to the internet as platform and an attempt to understand the rules for success on that new platform. Chief among those rules is this: build applications that harness network effects to get better, the more people use them.”

Okay, now I’m nervous. Over in happy valley, investors are full of Web 2.0 excitement. They also have short memories.

Bubble burst

Were you a CIO back in 2000? Remember the conferences telling you that a web-application business revolution was happening and was about to completely reshape your industry?

But isn’t Web 2.0 a bit like ‘dot-com bubble number one. Oooh damn, where’s all my money?’
Before the bust, it was obvious that the ‘first internet wave’ was about online businesses selling to consumers – Amazon – and on the ‘second wave’ companies would collaborate using web-based tools. These tools would drive out costs through supplier relationship management – remember Infobank, the UK’s great hope – net markets and aggregated buying power. In April 2001 a joint press release from Microsoft and Commerce One promised: “Technology tools aimed at making it easier for organisations of all sizes to buy, sell and collaborate on the web.” Commerce One filed for bankruptcy in 2004.

Some said we were moving from the first wave, bypassing the second and moving straight to the internet third wave. Heady days indeed.

There was nothing wrong with the concepts of collaborative commerce. Well, apart from ignoring how companies actually operate, asking big players in established industries to reshape their procurement processes online using untested technology and basing success on firms exposing their inner workings to their main competitors.

Why it matters

What happens with Web 2.0 is not academic, especially if the evangelists get hold of budgets as before. It could lead to masses of spending on technology dead ends. Can IT afford another loss of face on this scale?
There is a philosophical argument that says believing that the Earth goes around the sun is as great a leap of faith as believing God is in his heaven. But astronomers say they can prove it and we believe them, priests meanwhile, say you’ve got to have faith. But to have faith in something as tenuous as Web 2.0? If proselytisers start gushing at you about how companies need to accommodate Web 2.0, the best response is: “I’ll believe in it when you come back with proof it exists. Until then, you’re selling horoscopes.”