By entrusting their data to sites like Gmail, Flickr, Google Docs or even Microsoft's nascent Live services, users ensure that they can access it anytime, anywhere they have a Web browser and a Net connection. Is this the next culture-changing IT revolution, or a Pandora's box unleashing devastating changes we'll only understand after it's too late?
The question threaded its way throughout this week's Web 2.0 Summit, which drew a glittering collection of tech luminaries to San Francisco to discuss the Web's evolution and pitch their latest products and services. At the show's heart was an intense focus on platforms like Facebook and MySpace, networking sites that attempt to chart out the 'social graph' of users' personal and professional connections.
Entrepreneurial true believers cast such sites as a major new technology frontier. Commenting on Facebook's move in May to open site APIs and encourage developers to treat Facebook as a platform, investor and entrepreneur Dave McClure called it 'the most significant event that's happened in the last five years in the Internet, perhaps second only to Google's IPO."
Others went even further. Ali Partovi, who sold the last company he founded to Microsoft and now runs music social networking service iLike, said his development team studied Facebook's platform plans and "came away with the conclusion that this could be the greatest paradigm shift in technology since the launch of the Internet itself."
MySpace tossed more fuel on the fire by announcing plans to follow Facebook into the platform market. MySpace will open its currently fairly closed infrastructure to enable deeper development and application monetization "within the next couple of months," MySpace CEO Chris DeWolfe said Wednesday at one of the conference's marquee discussion sessions.
MySpace's approach will be more guarded than Facebook's and will require applications to be vetted before being set loose on the service.
"The idea is to make sure that the applications are safe and secure," DeWolfe said. "At the end of the day we expect the majority of these applications will make it on to MySpace. We will have a sandbox, but it should be pretty easy for applications to get through."
Application developers who have chosen to build around social-network platforms say the sites offer spectacular economics of scale. ILike originally intended to build an independent network to connect people with similar musical tastes.
But after taking a look at Facebook's platform offerings, the team decided to halt its current work and devote its resources to building on Facebook, leveraging the site's infrastructure instead of creating their own. The choice also enabled iLike to tap into Facebook's audience, which Facebook estimates at 45 million active users.
The gamble paid off: Within 24 hours of going live on Facebook, iLike had more registered users than it had attracted in the entirety of its previous, independent incarnation. And then, it kept growing, sending iLike's engineers scrambling to buy, beg and borrow as many servers as they could get their hands on over a long holiday weekend to keep pace with traffic demands.
"We're confident that Facebook is the right place to put the bulk of our investments," Partovi said. "It's extremely Darwinian. It rewards hard work and valuable applications."
But the dark side of the seductive ease Web 2.0 applications and platforms offer is the rapidness with which they can change -- or disappear. In a popular, contrarian conference session titled "Web Two Point No: And You Thought Microsoft Was Bad," legal scholar Jonathan Zittrain mapped out his concerns about the extensive legal and technical power hosted software services place in the hands of the vendors that run them."