Read/Write Web’s Tech Trends of 2009

Clouds on Steroids
Image by …-Wink-… via Flickr

It’s the time of year where everyone is either re-hashing last year or predicting next year. Here is one of the better re-caps of important technology trends, as outlined by Read/Write Web.

I’ll go through each of the five points and add some commentary.

Structured data

The trend of structured data is about distilling web pages down to the specific bits of content that make them up. As R/WW points out, this is leading to a transition from web sites to web services. Many popular web sites include an API, which is a coding tool that allows lots of different developers to make useful web tools based on the data gathered/created by the web site.

Example: The real estate industry

I do a fair amount of work with clients in the real estate industry. It’s a fairly straightforward business on the surface: lead generation for their firms and on behalf of clients for whom they are marketing houses. If you’re not in real estate, I bet you can find some similarities to your own industry.

The real estate industry is based very much in a structured data universe: housing data, geography, features and so on. For many years this data has been structured at a local level into Multiple Listing Services (MLS). However, there is little agreement on how the data is structured–there is no standard in this as of yet. My favorite example is that in Vermont, a “waterfront” field will refer to the number of feet of beachfront while in nearby NH a “waterfront” field will be the name of the body of water.

Though housing-related data is structured, it’s balkanized into hundreds of regional silos. As a result, developing useful systems that make use of the data created by real estate professionals is a challenge–for many smaller MLS regions the cost of building the system may outweigh the benefit a technology vendor can reasonably gain back.

This has led to some business pain for real estate professionals:

  • Relatively high prices for real estate web sites with integrated search
  • Competition for consumer attention from content businesses such as Trulia, Zillow and Google
  • Operational complexity in marketing properties across multiple online eco-systems; especially problematic as marketing prowess becomes an increasingly important service for real estate professionals.

Takeaway on structured data trends

Structured data and the APIs to make use of it is definitely on the rise because it helps to solve real business pain. The battles to watch will be about how the data in your industry becomes structured and standardized. There are a ton of competing technologies and formats out there. Some of them will be proprietary, some will be open. Some will be easy to use and access. Others will be in silos that are difficult to scale (like real estate MLS data in the example above). Paying attention to how data in your industry is being structured will be worthwhile .

Read Write Web’s discussion of structured data including examples such as Google, Wolfram|Alpha and Reuters’ Calais tool can be found here.

The real-time web

As data and information become more structured it becomes easier for technologists to find and surface the good stuff. Also, as information is broken down into smaller chunks of data, it becomes easier to create content quickly. It takes less time to write a Twitter post than a blog post. Also, it’s easier for search engines and other tools to locate, store, sort and display a Twitter post than blog post. Perhaps not that big a difference until you want to scale it to the entire web.

Capitalizing on real-time web in social media

The rise of social media is playing a big role the real-time web. The “social” part of social media is people having conversations. And people would rather have conversations right now than in delayed bursts. Twitter’s growth is a big indicator of this.

Many of the businesses I’ve consulted with over the past year have gone from not using social media at all to becoming active participants. One of the first steps on this path is using social media to listen. Clients who have learned to use social media to listen have been able to capitalize on the trend of real-time web use in the following ways:

  • Help a prospective customer out at the moment that customer needed help.
  • Solve customer support issues early and in a transparent fashion.
  • Effectively insert their brand or message into larger ongoing online conversations.

But the challenge of monitoring and responding remains large for many organizations, especially as ROI for social media is still not being measured consistently.

Takeaway for the real-time web

Conversations will be happening online in a variety of channels and consumers are going to expect to be heard and responded to. Companies who gain skills and experience in using online channels to listen and respond will be better positioned for this shift in online behavior.

Read Write Web’s analysis of the real-time web trend in 2009 includes examples such at Twitter, Facebook and Delicious. Read it here.

Personalization

This one seems as old as the dot-com era. “Some day we’ll finally get a front page made up of just the stories we’re interested in” was sort of the calling card of the portals of yore. What’s changing about this buzzword?

Well, with structured data, the way in which data can be located and distributed is changing, for one. And our increased use of social media sites is leaving larger trails of information about our own interests. It isn’t just a checklist of “what kinds of stories are you interested in” that determines how information gets to us.

The combination of who are friends are, what sorts of things we talk about and promote online, what sort of information we volunteer about a wide range of topics (many of which are not accurately reflected in the newspaper-section paradigm prevalent int he days of portals)–all of this can now used to create a sort of transparent behind-the-scenes personalization in many web applications.

Example of personalization: changing communication habits

One of the side effects of increasing personalization is that we can insulate ourselves from outside input. This is part of the whole idea-divide in politics where one can choose information exclusively based on whether they are likely to agree with one’s existing ideas. Huffington Post for some, say and Rush Limbaugh for others. We also see this offline in gated communities and those choosing to live in geographic areas primarily because of common beliefs. The desire to be surrounded by those we find agreeable is probably a built-in human trait. Technology is just enabling this nouveau tribalism.

One of my clients has a target audience of young athletes: college kids and high school kids. He has noticed that many of them don’t even use email any longer, preferring instead to use the communication system built into Facebook. One of the reasons cited is that they have explicit control over who is allowed to contact them: there are no messages from people they don’t already know or otherwise explicitly approve to send them messages. The observation of a decline in teen use of email is supported by Pew research.

Takeaway on the trend of online personalization

As computer systems get better at delivering truly personalized experiences, businesses and organizations will need to develop increasingly creative methods of reaching new audiences. You can’t personalize or opt-in for something you don’t know about. Making greater use of social networking to spread awareness and reach will likely be a big part of bridging this divide in the years ahead. Nurture your vocal audience.

Read Write Web discusses personalization including a breakdown of how recommendation systems work here.

Mobile web and augmented reality

The iPhone is already a cultural icon. Google’s Android platform will further extend the fully capable pocket-sized device market. People will increasingly want all that real-time, personalized and structured data available to them 24/7 wherever they are. Presenting that data in conjunction with live images of the real world will provide a context to help users understand their environment. Or maybe it will just help them find a subway faster.

Examples of the mobile web

As content is increasingly consumed on-the-go and on-location via mobile devices, the interface of web sites and (per structured data above) web services often needs to be rethought. Challenges include the little screens, the touch gestures, the situationsĀ  (and mobile devices) where touch gestures don’t work so well and so on. Getting content to an audience on a mobile device is a different skill setĀ  than designing web sites, just like making a 3 minute web animation is different from making a half-hour television show.

The biggest area of difference revolves around attention. Not only are mobile devices noticeably slower at retrieving data than their laptop counterparts (witness the conversations about AT&T 3G service and rollout in Burlington, Vermont, for example), but the time users spend with the data is limited as well. This makes sense because your data is competing with the real world: a much more engaging and data rich experience.

Interestingly, some of the most innovative uses of augmented reality are also based around interfacing with data more than display of data.

Takeaways from mobile and augmented reality trends

Organizations that gain experience with deploying mobile applications (to speed the delivery of structured data to people in an information-rich real-world) and the emerging technology of augmented reality will have tangible advantages in reaching and engaging audiences vs those who wait on the sidelines. If your organization is planning to wait on the sidelines, perhaps consider buying talent from one of the more experienced firms when the time comes for you to enter mobile and augmented reality spaces.

Read Write Web discusses mobile and augmented reality here.

The internet of things

Hopefully we didn’t lose you on augmented reality. Because the internet of things is even more crazy (and important). As data becomes structured and the availability of mobile technology increases we gain the ability to create devices that make meaning from their own data and share it with a larger networked system. This is some real back-end technology that is likely to continue to go through whizz-bang fad usage, sort of like Flash skip-intros of the late 90s (before Flash became the ubiquitous workhorse of online video and rich internet applications) or like augmented reality.

Read Write Web gives more context on the Internet of Things here.

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