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Peeking Into Web X.0

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Web 3.0? 4.0? How about Web 42.0? Alex Gofman peers into the future of what the Web will offer.
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Recently, a magazine of the global market research community asked me to write a column about a future of the Web and its impact on the consumer research industry. I have decided to look for answers at the Web 2.0 conference in New York that drew thousands of attendees from around the globe.

As avid conference-goers have discovered, the most stimulating part of many conferences comes not from the presentations but rather from the ‘buzz’ on the floors. Such discussion abounded at the conference at the Jacob Javits Convention Center this September as highly opinionated visitors eagerly talked about the nebulous future of the Internet, looking into Web 3.0, 4.0 and beyond.

How many versions of the Web are there anyway? While many are still trying to jump on the Web 2.0 train (current version), the future incarnations of the Web are already being thrashed out. The most popular among the bloggers seems to be Web 4.0 with the sequential line of foreseen versions going on and on seemingly endlessly until Web 42.0 (by then, I stopped Googling). With the current trend of about a decade per Web ‘version’ to fully develop, Web 42.0 would unroll midway through the current millennium.

Much like the ubiquitous Rashomon effect demonstrates how a single phenomenon can be viewed unidentifiably by different people, there is no uniform opinion about the Internet development, even in the near future. Corporate IT and finance executives see Web 3.0 parsimoniously replacing desktop applications such as the omnipresent Microsoft Office with more affordable software-as-a-service (SaaS) applications available on demand over a network. Internet gurus see Web 3.0 differently, calling the upcoming version the Semantic Web. Proposed by the ‘father’ of WWW, Tim Berners-Lee, Web 3.0 will analyze all the data on the Web – the content, links, and transactions between people and computers, allowing computers to converse to handle day-to-day business and personal tasks.

Semantic Web, yet to realistically materialize, will simplify many of our tasks, including basic Web searches. Currently, searching for the Hilton Paris hotel poses a risk of distraction to continuing business tasks, as major search engines do not really differentiate between “Hilton Paris” and “Paris Hilton.” Semantic Web is expected to be smart enough to understand the searcher’s intent beyond the keywords. A welcome development, yet still about data, but not people.

According to Seth Godin, author and globally recognized technology-minded Internet guru, Web 4.0 is about ubiquity (as it deals with activities, not just data, and most human activity takes place offline), identity (as the results are based on who you are, what you do and what you need) and connection (an individual is nothing without the rest of us).

In Godin’s vision of Web 4.0, if I were to start typing an e-mail proposing a particular business deal, a message would pop up, telling me that one of my colleagues is already in talks with the same company. If I were to miss an airplane flight, my cell phone would automatically find alternatives, help with the re-booking, and automatically let my dinner appointments know that I’ll be late. When I consider a purchase, my Web device will ask me if I want the item cheaper or if I prefer to buy it from a vendor with a higher reputation. The advice is not based on the paid keyword or any other gamed system, but rather on what a small trusted circle believes. It sounds a lot like the Semantic Web – with less privacy.

Let’s dream further. The search engine observes my searches and does the same for other similar minded people. It suggests to me other interesting things I ought to search for, and it puts me in contact with people with matching search patterns and presumably similar mind-sets (birds of feather).

Or you visit a blog (or a website) for the first time. The browser knows your interests, what you are usually reading or looking for and suggests the appropriate entries. Spam would be mainly eliminated because when any of my colleagues marks an e-mail as a spam, it applies to the whole group. The same goes for personal e-mails and how my circle of friends marks them. At the same time, if a colleague highlights an e-mail worth reading, it goes to the top of my e-mail list. The system keeps a note of my reaction to these e-mails – do I read them, take an action or just delete. Over time, it learns whose suggestions are worthy and who lacks the credibility.

Some futurists see the upcoming Web as a place where any data – in fact, all data – is ubiquitously available. All knowledge encompassing music, art, books and movies is publicly available. Even more, our individual experiences, senses and, in the most daring predictions, even our thoughts become a public domain making people a part of the global network of humans and machines. DeWitt Clinton, one of the influential Web gurus, predicts that the distinction between human and computer thoughts will be blurred. We will be part of the network, the network will be part of us. We will be the hive mind, and we collectively will have evolved into something quite unlike anything the world has ever seen.

For many, the world of future Web envisioned by technology visionaries might sound rather more frightening than enticing, as much of one’s life would become open to others (although limited to the trusted circle). The truth is, however, that nowadays privacy is an illusion. While we lull ourselves into thinking that we have privacy, video surveillance and credit card companies and website operators disagree. If the information we are fighting so hard to protect is already out there and databased on many servers in every corner of the world, we might as well get some benefits from it, if we so choose.

If one is dubious about technical feasibility of these ideas, look at the short and explosive history of Internet and communication technologies in general. They develop with ever-increasing acceleration getting to the next level faster and faster, sometimes even leapfrogging itself. In fact, Web 4.0 and some implementations of the following versions develop from the periphery based on the needs of the consumers (as Web 2.0 did). Thus, it could come sooner than the Semantic Web of 3.0, which relies on the centralized and coordinated efforts of making all websites complying with new standards.

Whether it is called Web 3.0, 4.0, 10.0 or 42.0, the upcoming changes should make peoples’ lives easier, fuller, more interesting, more connected and more transparent anticipating what consumers want deep inside. This is what market research is designed to discover, this time on a 1-to-1 basis and without averaging. Could it be another opportunity for the industry to help shape the future?


This article is an extended version of an article that was published in Research World, the monthly magazine of ESOMAR (www.esomar.org/index.php/research-world.html).

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