New Digital Dawning

Are you ready for the incredible things coming to the online world? Join us on our journey to the future of the web.

Think about this: Ten years ago, a group of technology experts sat down and envisioned the future of the internet. They imagined the ubiquity of e-mail, that the web would be home to a giant auction house, and that phones would be able to access tiny versions of the online world.

Actually, nobody ever predicted what the internet has become today. We were all too busy learning basic HTML tags and trying to remember how to check our e-mail. But that won't stop us from looking ahead now to the future of the web and what role entrepreneurs will have in it. An exciting world is developing, and growing businesses will be riding the waves as both users and innovators.

Who's in Charge?
Sometimes the best way to understand the big picture is to take a look at the smaller brush strokes that make it what it is. Here's a big trend: decentralization of control. It's a move toward web users having more power to control their own online experiences. Here are some of the brush strokes: wikis, blogs, podcasts, RSS and mash-ups. You've probably heard of most of those, and if you haven't, you'll probably hear of them soon.

Joe Kraus, co-founder with Graham Spencer of wiki startup JotSpot, has a strong sense of web history. He was one of the original founders of early search engine Excite and is an active angel investor involved with tech companies. His passion these days is wikis-collaborative websites that can be edited by multiple users. "Wikis felt like a useful tool [back in 1993], but for a limited crowd. They were trapped in the land of the nerd. [They're] more powerful because [they] tap everybody's knowledge instead of restricting it to a single individual," says Kraus, 34. Palo Alto, California-based JotSpot, jumping on the larger trend toward decentralized control, has set out to bring wikis into the mainstream.

That trend, in fact, has entrepreneurs blogging to their customers, sending out podcasts and gathering news through RSS feeds. These are all relatively new trends that will magnify as the web moves forward. Says Kraus, "I'm a huge believer that the most powerful revolutions in computing are do-it-yourself revolutions."

Web: The Next Generation
Trying to guess where Google is heading is like listening to the sounds of a circus setting up from outside the big-top tent: You know something exciting is going to happen; you just don't know what. Blogs are burning with speculation, many connecting the dots to the concept of the web as a computing platform. All that guesswork underlines another fundamental shift in the web: the move away from static web pages to a more interactive, real-time environment. It's the next generation. It's the Web 2.0. And it's already underway.

Steven Minton, 47, co-founder of web intelligence and search company Fetch Technologies in El Segundo, California, is an entrepreneur working in the thick of the Web 2.0 evolution. "The web is not made for computers; it's made for people," says Minton. "The vision of Fetch Technologies is [to make] the web a more productive place for computers to collect information." That's also a strong underpinning of the Semantic Web--an intriguing project from web creator Tim Berners-Lee that is aligned with many of the concepts of Web 2.0.

What this all means for entrepreneurs is that the way you use the web is shifting. Search engines will be one noticeable area of improvement. Minton looks ahead to what we can expect to see over the next five years: "[You'll] be able to do a better job of searching because you'll tell them the type of thing you're interested in. There will be more automated assistants to help you shop, travel and so forth, and more sophisticated decision-making aids."

Another sign of the changing web environment is AJAX. No, not the cleanser. AJAX--Asynchronous JavaScript and XML--is a web development technique for building interactive web applications so they behave more like regular software that resides on your PC. Some examples of AJAX in use include Google Maps and photo-sharing site Flickr.

Says Minton, "One of the most interesting things happening right now is that the leaders--Google, Yahoo! and a few others--are really breaking new ground in a hurry. It's one of those rare times in history where some of the biggest companies are making the biggest inroads."

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This article was originally published in the January 2006 print edition of Entrepreneur with the headline: New Digital Dawning.

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