Something struck me while listening to Tim O'Reilly's keynote speech at the Web 2.0 expo yesterday: glancing at my notes after he walked off stage, I noticed that his current definition for Web 2.0, is a lot like the definition he's given for Web 3.0. Based on this, plus past comments from O'Reilly that I dug up via a few web searches, I am forced to one conclusion: Tim O'Reilly, the man credited with popularizing the term Web 2.0, doesn't actually believe it exists. For O'Reilly, there is just the web right now. 1.0, 2.0, 3.0 -- it's all the same ever-changing web.

Let's first take a look at Tim O'Reilly's widely used and accepted compact definition for Web 2.0 circa 2006 (way, way back in the dark ages of a year and a half ago):

Web 2.0 is the business revolution in the computer industry caused by the move to the internet as platform, and an attempt to understand the rules for success on that new platform. Chief among those rules is this: Build applications that harness network effects to get better the more people use them. (This is what I've elsewhere called "harnessing collective intelligence.")

We can perhaps simplify that even further: Web 2.0 is the web as a platform and collective intelligence (or, leveraging of user created data). Now let's look at Tim's definition of Web 3.0 (which actually predates his last Web 2.0 definition):

Recently, whenever people ask me "What's Web 3.0?" I've been saying that it's when we apply all the principles we're learning about aggregating human-generated data and turning it into collective intelligence, and apply that to sensor-generated (machine-generated) data.

Which we can simplify to mean, the leveraging of the things we created in Web 2.0. And here's the Web 2.0 defintion he had up on a slide yesterday during his keynote:

  • The Internet is the platform
  • Harnessing the collective intelligence
  • Data as the "Intel Inside"
  • Software above the level of a single device
  • Software as a service

O'Reilly talked about Web 2.0 in terms of taking user-generated data and turning it into user facing services. So now we're starting to see a lot of overlap between the two definitions. He's also brought in a lot of Web 3.0 definitions that other people have given and used them as part of this broader definition of Web 2.0. For example, Eric Schmidt of Google talked about Web 3.0 in terms of sofware as a service and cloud computing. Our own Alex Iskold talked about Web 3.0 in terms of web sites being turned into platforms. And so on.

"For 'Web 3.0' to be meaningful we'll need to see a serious discontinuity from the previous generation of technology ... I find myself particularly irritated by definitions of 'Web 3.0' that are basically descriptions of Web 2.0," Tim O'Reilly once said, which is mildly ironic given that his current Web 2.0 definition basically eclipses his old Web 3.0 definition. But in reality, I think O'Reilly is saying that the versioning doesn't really matter -- the web is the web.

"The points of contrast [between Web 2.0 and Web 3.0] are actually the same points that I used to distinguish Web 2.0 from Web 1.5. (I've always said that Web 2.0 = Web 1.0, with the dot com bust being a side trip that got it wrong.)," wrote O'Reilly last fall. In otherw words, the versioning of the web is silly. Web 1.0, 2.0, or 3.0 is all really just whatever cool new thing we're using the web to accomplish right now.

And he has a point. A couple of days ago, we wrote about the history of the term Web 3.0 and noted that the term itself doesn't really matter, what matters is the discussions we have when trying to define it. "It is the discussion that is helpful rather than coming to any accepted definition. Some might argue that version numbers are silly on the web, that Web 2.0 and Web 3.0 are just marketing ploys, and that we shouldn't use terms that are so nebulous and difficult to define. Those are all fair points. But at the same time, the discussions we have about defining the next web help to solidify our vision of where we're going -- and you can't get there until you decide where you want to go," we wrote.

Web 2.0 and Web 3.0 -- they don't really exist. They're just arbitrary numbers assigned to something that doesn't really have versions. But the discussion that those terms have prompted have been helpful, I think, in figuring out where the web is going and how we're going to get there; and that's what is important.

So next time someone asks me what we cover on ReadWriteWeb, maybe I won't use the term "Web 2.0" in my reply, I'll just tell them that we write about the web, what you can do with it now, and what you'll be able to do with it in the future.