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Weekly Column

Accessories Make the Nerd: The Supreme Court This Week Unknowingly Pushed Us All Toward Web 2.0

Status: [CLOSED]
By Robert X. Cringely
bob@cringely.com

The United States Supreme Court this week ruled against Grokster and StreamCast, saying the peer-to-peer file-sharing services could be held liable if their members used them to illegally share copyrighted material. Depending on who you are, this decision probably appeared to be wise or unwise, fair or unfair, good or bad, and either chilling for technical innovation, or...well, chilling for technical innovation. But I'm here to tell you it is none of the above. I don't know whether the Supreme Court was right or wrong, but I can tell you that except for the limited case of the Groksters, themselves, and their retirement savings, the decision means very little. It is simply a tide that carries all boats.

There are those who think that the movie studios and record companies, having prevailed in this action, will now work feverishly to shut down video and music file sharing. I hardly think so. What they will do is work feverishly to turn video and music file sharing into a profitable business for their companies. Rather than being perceived as a huge stop sign, the studios and record companies see this as a giant green light for their own efforts, since they now believe that they have the legal ability to shut down any non-commercial competition.

So look between now and the end of the year for a number of studio-led initiatives to disintermediate anyone and everyone they perceive as being between their front gates and your wallet.

Frankly, I think this is good. Whether money is charged or not, establishing such services will raise the profile of Internet video and music, create new distribution avenues, encourage more film and music production by creating cheaper means for taking product to market, and ultimately lead to downward price pressure on each pair of receiving ears and eyeballs. This decision means more commercial competition and more commercial competition always leads to lower prices.

But the studios are wrong if they also think that this decision means the end for illegal file sharing. For that matter, the Supreme Court may view it that way, too, and they'd also be wrong. All it has done is change the game, accelerating a trend that was already inevitable -- the transition to Web 2.0.

Web 2.0 -- the next version of the World Wide Web -- is getting a lot of press lately in nerdish circles, but the terms in which it is being described often don't make sense to me. There is a lot of data stored today on the web that isn't accessible using traditional search engines, leading to what Bob Wyman calls the visible, invisible, and gray webs. Visible is web data we use today, mainly with the help of Google. Invisible is data that is ignored by Google and the other search engines. And the gray web is filled with data that we can search, perhaps, but can't understand. Imagine using an English-language search engine to search a Persian-language web site. The way out of this, to a new dawn where visible, invisible, and gray data alike are available to us, is through Web 2.0 (sometimes called or confused with the so-called "semantic web"), where we will use metadata (primarily XML) to advertise our needs and disposals to the world.

This is a huge leap for anything as established as the Web, to say that we are going to add an overlay of metadata so that you can not only share with the world a picture of your car, but also set terms under which you'd sell that car.

There are people right now who want to enable such activity. My friend Joe Reger of reger.com is a good example. Joe sees himself as being at the forefront of what he calls "data blogging," in which you use RSS not only to share your political thoughts with the world, but also to tell the world that you'd like a hot date for Saturday, preferably with a NASCAR fan. Joe believes that data blogging will eventually replace the huge structured Yahooesque web sites presently used to express thoughts and find hot dates, respectively. You won't have to build from scratch another Craig's List or match.com, just compile one from all this available metadata.

There are several problems with this concept, not the least of which is the Tower of Babel effect in which every metadata tagger can use his or her own tagging system, none of which are necessarily readable by the others. Joe sees no problem in that because computers are really good at lifting and carrying, and mapping a thousand tag formats to each other isn't all that much harder than mapping a few. But I see people as being inherently lazy, and Yahoo and Google and all the other big web companies as being inherently greedy and unwilling to give up their businesses so easily.

The fact is, as one of my friends likes to say, this Web 2.0 blather "supposes a world where entrepreneurship is not necessary to establish a large, successful, data-driven business. Why will the people do any of this extra-laborious mark-up? They won't. There has to be something in it for them. That something has to be invented and executed, earned with capital. Don't give me the socialist vision of 'the masses will undo the monopolies.' The new monopolies will undo the monopolies, and the masses will be along for the ride, deriving lots of value from the fighting: Prices will go down, new differentiating services will be invented, etc."

So is there any place for Web 2.0? Of course there is, but it will most likely take place in a context where -- absent any over-riding motivations like one I'll mention in another paragraph or two -- the big data aggregators will still be spending money to aggregate data and will be selling it back to us in one way or another. The power of Web 2.0 isn't in the writing of data types, you see, but in the reading of them. Yahoo isn't going away, believe me.

Here is what Web 2.0 WILL be, in my view: a new way of structuring Internet businesses around published APIs, Application Programming Interfaces. New companies will spring up that simply glue web-based APIs together. For example, Google Maps plus accident reports for insurance companies, or Amazon plus eBay plus Froogle for purchasing departments.

Forty percent of eBay's business comes through APIs today. Think about it.

Web 2.0 will be staffed by two different kinds of entrepreneurs -- those who provide staunch web services exposed through APIs (Amazon, eBay, Google, and a bunch more), and those who glue those services together and make some sort of useful abstraction service.

As an example, look at Greasemonkey, a FireFox plug-in that allows dynamic client-side manipulation of web pages. In other words, you write a little JavaScript app that gets applied to every page you want it to on YOUR browser. With Greasemonkey you can add a delete button to Gmail (there isn't one now), add a link on every Amazon book page that looks up that book in your local library and tells you if it's on the shelf or not. In other words, with Greasemonkey you can manipulate anyone's web page to do anything you want (even collect info from other web pages and aggregate it). Now that's powerful.

And it brings us back to Grokster and the Supreme Court. Grokster wanted to be seen as a common carrier like the telephone company. Just because telephones can be used to plan and sometimes carry out crimes doesn't make the phone company a criminal accessory. But Grokster, the Court decided, was built more with the intention of illegally sharing music than the phone company was built to aid kidnappers. So Grokster IS a criminal accessory in the eyes of the court.

What will happen, of course, is that Web 2.0 will turn the next Grokster into several separate organizations offering different services that use a common API syntax to create a Grokster equivalent. Each of these parts will look more like the phone company and less like Grokster until the Supreme Court won't recognize them as the accessories they happen to be.

Crime never goes away, it just evolves.

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