Web 2.0 Ahead of the Curve

Widgetization has become emblematic of a cool Web 2.0 application. Widgets are simply small size applications that can be positioned on a web page, lately by dragging and dropping them into place. Google widgets (Google calls them gadgets) customize the user's home page. Facebook glamorized the widget by offering over 2,900 of them and counting.

Web 2.0 applications become more complex

A technology product developer wrestles with complexity versus simplicity of use. An internet application is no different...

This 2005 Wharton paper  The upgraded digital divide: Are we developing new technologies faster than Consumers can use them? does a good job explaining new product evolution from "wow" to "geeky" to "usable" to "mainstream":

"Today we're seeing a somewhat anomalous bump in the evolution of consumer technology products," Whitehouse says. "In the early phases of that evolution, which we are still in the midst of, there was a tendency for manufacturers to add features. Greater computing power [in consumer products] lets you add more features. And as long as companies focus on differentiating their products through their features, that produces complexity. But it's a short-term trend. The very thing that causes the complexity will actually be the solution. More computing power also means you can make devices more 'intelligent' and, hence, simpler to use. Think about recording TV programs. Using a TiVo or a Windows Media Center PC is a lot easier than programming a VCR."

Analogy: Consumers find Web 2.0 applications like Netvibes and Facebook overwhelming because there are so many choices for customizing the application. Yet, consumers (usually first adopters) will harness the complex new features, adopt the new methodology and discover utility. Facebook devotees swear by its efficacy as a networking tool.

In addition, Whitehouse foresees increasing standardization of user interfaces among tech products. Think about driving a car. There are many makes and models of cars, with a variety of styles and features to differentiate them. Yet all automobiles function pretty much the same way and the basic user interface -- dashboard, steering wheel, ignition -- is fairly consistent. If this were not the case, driving a new rental car would be a nightmare.

Analogy: The new world of Web 2.0 applications and their widgets seem to all work differently... each application is a new learning experience.

"We have to get to that point with other categories of consumer products, but we're just too early up the curve now," says Whitehouse. "In introducing tech products today, the main emphasis is on differentiation and how your product is unique. But if you fast-forward another five or 10 years, you will notice certain functions becoming more similar. You see this now with products like universal remote controls, digital cameras and Apple's Mac mini. Moving us toward this tipping point is the notion that we will start to see ease of use become the most compelling feature of all."

Analogy: Consumer adoption grows when the masses figure out how to use the application. Although complicated at first blush, Facebook is actually fairly easy to figure out and use. It's already mainstream and will become the model for the "hyper-personalized" Web 2.0 application.

A Real Estate Example

Real estate has its own complexity / simplicity example in the two new VC-backed startups Terabitz and Second Space. Both companies have developed applications that are wooing sticky consumers with "lifestyle" information - listings, schools, cafes, demographics, crime stats, hobbies. Their approaches to reaching the consumer mirror the topic of this article.

Terabitz delivers that lifestyle data through a variety of drag and drop widgets. For an analytical data junkie, the application is glitz with the promise of "mashing up" various lifestyle data sets to provide unique perspectives and analysis of local housing market. And all can be done on one website application.

Second Space more traditionally is offering specific sites geared to a particular lifestyle orientation. Its first two sites Landwatch and Resortscape are rollouts of a network of lifestyle sites (I explain the business model here ). Instead of providing one venue for a consumer like Terabitz, Second Space provides a set of traditional sites that the consumer can easily navigate and use based on their particular lifestyle profile. Alex Barnett, Second Space's marketing head compares the product design to Apple in simplicity and utility.

Both sites have not yet implemented real estate agent to consumer interactive functionality like Q&A or discussion/comment forums associated with Web 2.0, but I'm assuming they will because they understand that their agent clients want this conversation to happen.

Here are a few more examples of the Geek Index to illustrate how complex a web application can get:

Yahoo Pipes


Zillow / Trulia


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