Spinning the Web

AJAX is one of the buzzwords of the Web 2.0 revolution. We look at the technology, and the new ways developers seek to make money from the Web.

The coding and design talent at Google’s disposal has pushed Web development in many innovative directions, and other programmers are poised to follow its lead.

The company has also backed and acquired key players in the Web 2.0 world, but its biggest Web 2.0 splash, comes from internally created services.

The company unwittingly catalyzed the mania around one of the year’s most-talked-about technologies, AJAX. The acronym stands for Asynchronous JavaScript and XML (Extensible Markup Language), an unwieldy but potent bundle christened by Jesse James Garrett, the director of user experience strategy for Internet consultancy Adaptive Path.

In February 2005, Garrett posted an essay on Adaptive Path’s Web site dissecting how a new wave of Web applications uses a collection of technologies including JavaScript, XMLHttpRequest and CSS (Cascading Style Sheets) to mimic the speed and smooth feel of desktop programs. Google’s Gmail, Maps, and Groups sites were among the examples Garrett cited to illustrate AJAX at work.

The essay unleashed a flood of feedback and commentary. AJAX rapidly passed into common developer lingo as software companies rushed out AJAX toolkits and press releases highlighting their own AJAX-compatible architectures.

AJAX winners

“Week after week, the level of interest in AJAX that I’m seeing just keeps going up and up,” Garrett said in a recent interview. “The really remarkable thing about the AJAX essay, and the thing we were really unprepared for, was the way it resonated far beyond the design audience for which it was intended.”

AJAX resonates now because the tech world is finally ready for it. In so many ways, Web 2.0 feels like dot-com déjà vu. Startups are hot again, venture capitalists are excited, programmers can cook creative new applications at home in their spare time, and users are willing to put in the effort to incorporate exotic new technologies into their lives. But many of the actual tools for building Web 2.0 programs, like JavaScript, have been around for years. The technology was available. It was the society that needed time to catch up.

“The upsurge of interest in AJAX applications is not driven by anything technological. It’s all about sophistication in understanding what the technology can do,” says Adaptive Path’s Garrett. “That sophistication is something that sometimes takes a few years to develop.”

Show me the money

Now Web developers are starting to harness the power of technologies such as AJAX, startups -- and the money men who fund them -- are looking to cash in on Web 2.0.

The concept is amorphous, but the hype around it is huge, and entrepreneurs running new ventures are quick to explain how their technology amplifies or exploits the benefits of Web 2.0 principles.

“We see ourselves acting as a bridge, between the idea of harnessing word of mouth -- one of the ‘clouds’ in Web 2.0 that we focus on -- and helping companies build a real business around that,” says Sam Decker, the vice president of marketing and products at Bazaarvoice in Texas. Launched in January with $4million in venture-capital backing, Bazaarvoice is developing a hosted application to help businesses build buzz around products by capturing the Internet version of “word of mouth.” The company’s software will let customers share notes on specific attributes of retail merchandise and will help clients mine data from that user feedback.

Bazaarvoice sees itself as part of the social Web phenomenon, an essential element in the Web 2.0 vision. From the user perspective, the social-technology evolution “is really an extension of the concept of Web ‘communities’ that came up in the 90s,” Decker says.

Bandwagon 2.0

Web 2.0 companies (and companies that aspire to be seen as such) are also experimenting with new models for software pricing, development, and deployment. Open-source and hosted, “on demand” software projects continue to fascinate investors. European venture-capital firm Index Ventures is backing open-source developers Pentaho, which makes business-intelligence applications, and Sugar CRM, which offers sales management software. Both companies allow users to download most of their code free. “Using the Net as a delivery mechanism for software solutions is on the rise,” says Bernard Dallé, a London-based general partner for Index Ventures.

“Flexibility is key,” agrees Warren Weiss, a general partner at Foundation Capital. “Companies are trying to lower the cost of entry for customers and letting users try applications before they really commit a lot of money to them,” he said.

That’s a philosophy boutique development shop 37signals enthusiastically backs. Its collection of Web applications for consumers and small businesses all include basic versions available at no cost. “We think it’s very important to give something away for free so that people will try it,” says company founder Jason Fried. “The products should be the sales pitch.”

37signals’ unorthodox marketing slogan sums up its development ethos: “Our products do less than the competition.” The unusual approach has been a hit with users: the company is profitable and its software draws rave reviews from geek cognoscenti. 37signals looks to strip out unnecessary functionality and offer users fast, lightweight, elegant applications -- the same sort of design mentality that helped the iPod and Google.com take off.

While some startups hope that positioning themselves as Web 2.0 pioneers will pay off in large valuations or rich acquisition deals, 37signals prefers staying small and independent. The company has a staff of less than a dozen employees. Like the tiny teams behind Flickr and del.icio.us, 37signals maintains that innovative development doesn’t require extravagant resources. “Being small doesn’t mean we can’t have a big impact,” Fried said. “Our vision is to change the way people think about software.”

And the technologies and people behind the Web 2.0 revolution are changing the way people think about the Internet, too.

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