Tuesday, October 18, 2005

The Future of the Web -- in Many Dimensions

Just when we think we understand the Web, we find it has yet another dimension. As in my recent blog post on Search and the Social Web, we can think about the Social Web as a level beyond the Public Web and the Private Web. At other times, we may be thinking about Web services and the Semantic Web as a next level.

As a way to think about the big picture, I suggest we think of these as particular dimensions in a Web that has many dimensions. I have a list of at least eight dimensions to think about now, and there are probably others I have missed, with more yet to surface. My current list:

  1. The Content Web -- the familiar Web of HTML and other basic content. This includes various sub-dimensions -- including dimensions of ownership and control, including the Public Web and the Private Web (the Dark Web) -- and dimensions of content type, including the HTML Web, the Audio Web, and the Video Web.
  2. The Social Web -- the added dimension of social networks that has become a hotbed. This applies the wisdom of Web users, both at large and in your social network -- and adding a level of what people think about content (including tagging, ratings, reputation, etc.).
  3. The Semantic Web -- the added dimension of metadata, concepts, and semantic information. This facilitates understanding by both people and machines, and supports the integration of Web functions in all dimensions. It had been limited to simple metadata, but is beginning to have much bigger impacts, particularly in business services --and in the collaborative, user-generated semantics of tags, ratings, and reputation (that come from the Social Web).
  4. The Service Web -- the Web of Web Services. This includes intelligent processing, transactions, computations, algorithms, grids, and informatics, that is increasingly powerful and well integrated. It brings the full power of computers into the linked mesh of the Web.
  5. The Spatial Web -- the dimension of location and geography, including the Local Web. This relates primarily to geo-coordinates, and brings the power of geographic information systems into the Web. Google Maps mashups are a current hot area.
  6. The Temporal Web -- the dimension of time. This has at least two subdimensions: a dimension of external time (the time the nodes are about, eg: when Julius Caeser died), and a dimension of Web time (the time the nodes took on their current content, eg: when the HBO Rome series went on the air). This includes the Web of Now (new Web pages and hot links, or the current external news) and the Web of the Past (the Wayback Machine, or external history), and the Web of the Future (forecasts).
  7. The Sensor Web -- the dimension of external reality, especially reality that is automatically sensed from sensor grids and/or physical tags. It dates as far back as the Cambridge coffee pot webcam, but the real impact of massive sensor grids is still some time off.
  8. The Communications Web -- the dimension of the many modes of human communications. This includes integrated messaging (phone, cell, email, SMS/MMS, IM, audio/video conferencing, etc) and multi-modal content and services (and the Web services that facilitate that).

My list started with just a few dimensions and quickly grew to eight. Like Monty Python's Spanish Inquisitors, "Amongst the chief dimensions of the Web are..."

Because the pace of development of these dimensions is variable, these are not so much successive levels or stages, but different dimensions in an n-dimensional space. They always exist in the abstract, but take on depth at their individual pace. Some of these are significantly developed already, while others are lacking in depth. Some are hot, and may have ups and downs as fads, while others are nascent.

It helps to step back to think of all of these dimensions now and then, to keep the big picture in mind. Otherwise we risk being like blind men talking about an elephant.

It also is useful to look as sub-spaces of two or three dimensions. Some groupings have obvious synergy, such as Spatial, Temporal, and Sensor, which relate to the real world. A key value of the Social Web is as a new and powerful way to create the Semantic Web.

Similarly, we can look at how one dimension relates to all others. For example, to understand location-based services, we can consider each of the other dimensions in projection onto the geo-spatial dimension, and then conceive new services from that perspective (as is happening with Google Maps mashups).

This idea of dimensions may have value in developing new navigation tools that let us surf the Web with a clear sense of multi-dimensionality -- able to move selectively in one or more dimensions, and to see our path from that perspective. Google Maps mash-ups gives a hint of this, with navigation keyed off the Spatial Web (dimension in the real world), moving back and forth from the Content Web to the Sensor Web, and with hybrids like combined map and satellite views. More virtual navigators enable us to view the Web by time, by concept (tag), by social network, etc.

This n-dimensional view seems to offer a powerful way to think about the Web and its future. It is complementary to the vision of Web 2.0 -- Web 2.0 addresses methods that make the Web more powerful and dynamic and rich in texture, in any and all dimensions. The dimensions are what give the Web its shape and extent.

Please comment with your feedback on these and other dimensions -- and on the perspectives they give rise to.

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