Suddenly the way to Web 3.0 seems clear
During the election I wrote about the demographic gap between iPhone and Blackberry users. In the past day I have leapt across that gap, ditching the corporate locked-down BBC Blackberry for a privately owned iPhone. Suddenly I can see a clear path through to Web 3.0, although it's not going to be pretty for parts of the media.
Basically, once you are in the world of truly smart smartphones, and proprietory applications, the old "web" looks like a legacy network. The formerly "free" information space is fragmenting into owned channels of communication, or at the very least prioritised and hierarchical channels. There is nobody at all going to "defend" the web as a transparent public place because, like the common land on which peasants grazed their sheep in the 17th century, it is very easily grabbable by self-styled landlords. And this is not all bad news, because it means people who create unique and amazing content can go back to doing what Jonathan Swift et al did at the start of mass book publishing: making money to pay the rent.
To recap about iterations of the web so far. In v 1.0 it was all about expensive, commercially-owned services and e-commerce, where only the strong survived. Information still flowed, as in the analogue age, from one to many.
Web 2.0 was where it became really easy and cheap to create services on the web, and social networks took off. Blogging was the first iteration of Web 2.0, Twitter is the latest.
But now the world of online is no longer a series of files on a server viewed through your PC. It is a series of devices and objects. For me, the "online" economy consists of the brown Amazon packages that drop onto the doormat from time to time, my iPod - an entire lifetime's CD collection stored there, my Kindle - which is clunky and not getting a huge amount of use - and until now my locked-down corporate Blackberry with its unreadably small text and slow GPRS connection to web pages that never load exactly as you want them to, especially when you are on a deadline or about to miss a flight.
The iPhone - and for the sake of balance I will also give a passing mention to its rival system, the Android phone which I have tried out and seems equally whizzy - takes you to a whole new level.
Probably the coolest thing that it has "done" to me so far is as follows. I downloaded an app that logs your running route on GPS, thereby obviating the need to buy a £300 plastic watch that's been designed to do only this. Then, as the run begins, it is announced on your Facebook page. Then, if your friends should write something like: "why are you out jogging while there's a deadline to meet", or, "watch out for the pitbulls in your local park", etc - the comment is immediately spoken, into your ear (for you are, of course, also listening to your jogging playlist on the iPhone) by a computer-generated voice.
This, I can tell you, is very weird and falls into the category for me of the famous bubble blowing machine that blows bubbles every time you say its name on Twitter. This machine caused crowds to form at a recent hi-tech trade show, and simultaneously caused all the hi-spec corporate demonstrations to be deserted as people marvelled at this machine, which cost about $100 dollars to make.
The lesson is: you don't know you want cool stuff, or have use for it, until you see it. And some stuff is so cool that people immediately invent uses for it.
There's a lot of futurology going on about what Web 3.0 will be. One argument sees Web 3.0 as a device-driven, rather than PC/Browser driven, version of Web 2.0 - in which the ability to put a commercial fence around information finally becomes socially acceptable to users because they can no longer get for free what they are now asked to pay for.
I have to say I buy this: lots of people in publishing are despairing because they don't see young people being prepared to buy anything online: music, books, etc. But I think they are wrong - it's just that people will only pay for something where the experience is enhanced - whether by its usability, timeliness or exclusiveness, or any other attribute human beings find alluring.
A more radical vision of Web 3.0 is Tim Berners Lee's idea of a "semantic web" where computers are able to make so much sense out of the existing information that they can begin to interact on humans' behalf with each other. It would be a seamless web of information that is both socially constructed and mechanically sorted.
This has also been described as the Metaverse 1.0 - a world where information and human life begin to interact seamlessly through devices. James Cameron's film Avatar captures a little of this vision.
Though I have been warned by my colleagues not to subscribe, for fear of being stalked, the application Foursquare seems to be closest to this: where you comment on, or rate, in real time, places you are in, and then your comments float around on a map nearby where you are for others to read. Meanwhile the "augmented reality" aspect of these so called geosocial services is interesting - my regular cameraman in the USA never tires of delighting us by pointing the iPhone in the direction of the nearest bar he has found on Urban Spoon and then guiding us there through the screen of the iPhone as if it were the Heads Up Display of, say, a jet aircraft.
All this has major implications for content creators that we're only just getting to grips with. The BBC is currently discussing what its "red lines" are in the world of online information - that is, what it should not do for fear of inhibiting private sector provision. News International has just put The Times, along with the Wall Street Journal, behind a paywall. The Guardian only requires you to pay (once) for an app that provides the newspaper free to your phone.
I think in a few years time most of these pay-for-information models will have settled down into a world where you do have to pay for high-spec information, or get it for free with a lot of targeted advertising attached. As the information becomes "rich" it will be hard to pirate the richness and though there will still be a counter-culture of info-piracy, and a culture of freely provided "user generated" content like blogs, Twitter, Facebook etc.
Within all this the BBC will probably be the only freely available, accurate, universal, impartial, non-commercial, simple to use source of news, current affairs, intelligent documentaries, classical music and intelligent talk radio. It's not a case of whether it "should" be doing entertainment, comedy etc - which is the Web 1.0 version of the argument. By 2020 the platforms will have evolved so much that the platform itself will define the content: what I mean is the rich, tactile, highly-personal experience you will get from proprietory devices - whether its the iPhone 10 or an enhanced gaming console - will define the kind of content that is produced, much as CGI is now driving the kind of films that are being produced. It seems axiomatic that the BBC will not be operating in all these media, but it will have to be more than just a bunch of TV shows, audio podcasts and web articles that you can now see on your phone rather than a radio, PC or TV.
It's quite a moment when all the neural pathways to the future are opened, just for a second, by glimpsing what a device can do. All this has big implications for politics and civil society too: like I said during the election - Cleggmania was a product of this generational shift in the consumption of information, and it took off essentially through the interaction of 24 hour TV and the social media, leaving the analogue tabloids standing - even despite their whizzy, celebrity-driven web presences.
For people in my business, the challenge now is to create the kind of content that sings "buy me" on these new geo-social devices. It's going to have to be more than a blog on the Newsnight website or a video clip of some FT journalist doing an explainer in the newsroom. But what is it? For certain it's going to have to have, as environmentalist Paul Hawken said in his book The Next Economy (in 1983!), less mass and more information.
Huffington Post has, for me, come closest to building a news source that exploits the attributes of Web 2.0 - where you share and recommend, and also where the editorial decisions react to the user data very fast. But what would Newsnight be like if it were redesigned for a world of realtime social interaction and delivered through highly graphic and interactive devices? (As opposed to the dumb, flat device where the only interaction possible is to throw an empty lager can at the screen).
What do you think?