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Monday, March 2, 2009

The Web 2.0 Band wagon

One of the in jokes at IBM’s support centres is about people who ring up asking to upgrade to Web 2.0. Explaining that it doesn’t come in a box, nor can it be downloaded, inevitably leads to the question: “Well, what is it exactly?”

All the usual suspects have had a go at providing an answer and as usual, when the subject is rather nebulous, nobody can come up with a very good explanation. So it was interesting to see Stephen Fry, the well known “Writer, Broadcaster and National Treasure” as he’s now billed, having a go.

He does a pretty good job, explaining that it’s “an idea in people's heads rather than a reality. It’s actually an idea that the reciprocity between the user and the provider is what's emphasised. In other words, genuine interactivity, if you like, simply because people can upload as well as download’. In other words, it’s the way we use it.

When we were first connected to the internet, we booked flights and read the football scores. Then we started using the web to communicate, writing blogs and interacting with friends through social networking sites such as Friends Reunited, MySpace, Facebook, and YouTube. And without anyone telling us, we were upgrading to Web 2.0.

Human nature being what it is, though, it wasn’t long before we got bored with who we are, and started to step into the shoes of the character we’d like to be. And so we expanded our networks to meet lots of other characters doing just the same thing, using Virtual Worlds, such as Second Life or moove.

Because these virtual worlds became so popular so quickly, and because they’re being used innovatively, it was inevitable that businesses would see commercial opportunities for them. IBM, Cisco, Mattel, HP, MTV and Disney are all at the forefront of exploiting the opportunities that virtual worlds offer. You can buy and sell virtual stuff already, while you chat with virtual friends over a virtual drink and listen to the London Philharmonic playing a virtual concert.

It’s not just the chance to trade that’s attractive though – there’s plenty that we can do in a virtual world to help us in the real world. Many of the firms spearheading the use of virtual worlds are looking to find better ways to do things that they have to do anyway. Some of the first applications were fairly obvious ones – technical or post sales support for example, where the graphic capabilities of virtual worlds offer a great way to show someone what to do, rather than just tell them.

Teleconferences, online meetings and web seminars are also starting to move into virtual worlds, again because of the interactive and graphic potential. And companies like IBM are now setting out to move business processes and procedures onto a virtual world, where they can be done better, more quickly and more efficiently. IBM already communicates with business partners and some customers like this. New hires, for example, go through the onboarding process on Second Life, and are trained in the same way. It’s also used as a collaborative tool for remote teams to work together on projects and delegate tasks to contractors, and a host of other tasks and applications will follow.

Onboarding and training are necessary if somewhat mundane tasks that confront us all – being able to do it in IBM’s virtual replica of the Forbidden City might at least make it a bit more fun.

By George Fletcher, Webster Buchanan Research

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