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Search, Web Services Power The 'Next' Web

SAN FRANCISCO -- The Web is evolving from a collection of linked pages to a network of interactive applications that communicate and collaborate. That was one of the themes tossed around at this week's Web 2.0 conference.

The most compelling Web sites are platforms, and it's search that links them to users, said conference chair John Battelle, the former publisher of The Industry Standard who writes the popular Searchblog.

The boutique conference, produced by O'Reilly Media, brought together the Internet's old guard and scrappy newcomers to consider the best ways to profit from the evolving Web.

"The first phase of the Web was about populating small pieces in the form of individual pages," said Joe Kraus, a co-founder of defunct search portal Excite. "Phase two is about joining these individual pieces together." He pointed out that there's no generalized way to integrate e-mail, Web pages and other kinds of data spread across the Web.

Kraus demonstrated JotSpot, a wiki-like application he said is really a platform for business data and applications. According to Kraus, JotSpot is an example of the next iteration of the Web, which will thrive as users customize and extend Web-based applications for specific needs via Web services protocols.

If the original HTML-based Web began as a better interface between humans and information stored on servers, said Jeff Bezos, CEO of Amazon.com , "Web 2.0 is about making the Internet useful for computers." He predicted that as more APIs [application programming interfaces] open up, developers will come up with more innovative ways to share and access data.

Indeed, more portals and e-commerce sites are trying to lure outside developers to build for their platforms. Even the insular AOL lured Maurice Sharp away from eBay in order to build APIs for third-party developers.

Sharp told internetnews.com he'll put together a team in Silicon Valley, then start putting the hooks into AOL's systems. The project doesn't have a timeline yet, but Sharp expects AOL's developer program to rollout by 2005.

Web services are the key to the platform evolution, because they provide a standard, controlled way for outside machines to interact with corporate systems. A company can "expose" only what it wants in the form of Web services: access to a database or product attributes, for example, or to an application such as search. Third parties "consume" these Web services by embedding them in their own applications or Web sites.

For example, instead of having to license and host a geospatial database, a site that publishes restaurant reviews could embed a tag that calls on a third-party database when a user wants directions to a particular restaurant.

As Tim O'Reilly, CEO of O'Reilly Media, put it, "Customers build your business for you."

Take eBay. The online auction giant has offered APIs since 1999, as well as Simple Object Access Protocol and Java integration capabilities to its software development kit. Matt Ackley, senior director of eBay's developer program, said the company has around 100 Web services calls available, while about a quarter of the money exchanged in the online marketplace is via PayPal, which is effectively a Web service on eBay. "Third-party developers will provide the next layer of growth," he said.

When outsiders build onto the platform, they often do it in surprising ways that the mother company wouldn't have considered.

For example, when Amazon.com exposed data from its Alexa Web services beta program, it kicked off a wave of creativity as it provided aggregated, close-to-real-time information about Web traffic, including the top sites visited and where visitors to one site go next. Amazon formally kicked off the Alexa Web Information Service (AWIS) on Monday.

Bezos demonstrated the company's MusicPlasma program at the conference. MusicPlasma is a music-finding service that used the beta version of AWIS to access Alexa's "what's related" information. When someone types a band name into a search box, a whimsical Flash interface recommends other bands, using a whimsical graphical chart showing how closely they're related. Bezos said MusicPlasma was created by two French college students.

"By offering Web services, we let a thousand flowers bloom," Bezos said. "There would be no way for two folks in a dorm room to build this kind of application without Web services." He added that even if someone within Amazon.com had come up with the idea, it might not have been prioritized.

"With APIs, we can let the ecosystem develop and get innovative things we ourselves may never have thought of or gotten to," Bezos said.

Finally, there's what they used to call "stickiness" in the Web 1.0 days: Developing a rich ecosystem of content, users and third-party apps and content keeps users' eye on the brand.

Louis Monier, director of eBay Research, pooh-poohed the idea that search and RSS feeds could make his company irrelevant by connecting consumers more directly with the exact information they seek. He said that the many services such as buyer and seller reputation rankings," auction alerts and dispute resolution, combined with the entertainment value of browsing, will continue to make eBay a destination site instead of a mere information feed.

In a panel at the conference, executives from Yahoo , Ask Jeeves , eBay, Amazon.com and Microsoft's MSN talked about the future of search. Mostly ignoring the concept of search as a platform, they agreed that search needs to go beyond popularity rankings to be more effective. (Google, the Garbo of search, was absent from the panel and, aside from a quick presentation on machine translation, the conference program.)

These companies are looking to personalization to offer more meaningful results. Udi Manber, chief algorithms officer for Amazon.com, said his company's A9 search engine's ability to remember which result a user clicked on in previous searches is a "wow" feature that makes search feel more like an external drive for his memory.

Christopher Payne, vice president of MSN search and shopping, used Newsbot as an example of MSN's experiments with personalization. Newsbot aggregates news stories and images, lets users search them and recommends other items of interest based on what stories a user reads. But deep search of the desktop and the Web will have to wait for Longhorn, Microsoft's long-awaited next version of Windows.

Marc Andreessen, co-founder of Netscape and chairman of Opsware, also took a shot at Microsoft for not making its Internet Explorer browser more of a platform. "Despite all its Internet properties and its ability to direct users to the sites and service you want them to go to, it's amazing they haven't exploited that position," he said.

For now at least, many search-oriented executives' comments were focused on increasing search ad revenue now, and turning their companies' tools into platforms of the future.