What is Web 3.0?

A new wave of Web applications could take over many tasks but developers must offer ways to manage the risks

by Jonathan Minder Illustration of a smart phone with applications around it

Imagine you want to book a vacation. After you indicate your desire via voice or text, your mobile Internet device (MID) goes to work. Without further effort, you receive flight and hotel recommendations based on your known preferences. Once you make a few core decisions, machines do the rest, making reservations, payment arrangements and coordinating with anyone joining you on the adventure.

This example represents the reduction of human participation in mundane tasks — the promise of the Semantic Web. It is the most widely discussed possibility for Web 3.0, a term used to describe the next major evolutionary shift on the Internet.

Tim Berners-Lee, inventor of the World Wide Web expressed his vision of the Semantic Web as follows: “I have a dream for the Web [in which computers] become capable of analyzing all the data on the Web�the content, links and transactions between people and computers. A ‘Semantic Web’, which should make this possible, has yet to emerge, but when it does, the day-to-day mechanisms of trade, bureaucracy and our daily lives will be handled by machines talking to machines. The ‘intelligent agents’ people have touted for ages will finally materialize.”

An alternative vision of Web 3.0 regards content control. Many people believe the Internet is overrun with useless content. Structuring useful content and creating new content would involve controlling clutter through a screening process — contributors would be credible experts. Others say Web 3.0 isn't technologically possible or that humanity's ability to manipulate machines will easily confuse computers.

Infrastructure

A variety of factors may affect the feasibility of transitioning to Web 3.0. Today, broadband Internet connections, third generation cell phone networks (3G), and wireless Internet can accommodate social networking and searches that primarily involve text-based interactions. For Web 3.0, the ability to move larger data sets at higher speeds would have to be standard.

Many locations now have access to fiber optic connections and there is additional fiber infrastructure in place that is not yet in use. The wireless industry is also quickly moving toward fourth-generation cell phone networks (4G/WiMax). The infrastructure will arrive. The main question is when? Will current visions of Web 3.0 still be relevant?

Mobile

Web 3.0 would require people to carry 4G smart phones. The ability of computers to interact with other computers on behalf of humans will only work if people are available to make core decisions in a timely manner. Everyone would need a robust MID to facilitate these interactions. Another key factor is the usability of complex applications. Today, the technology lifecycle of mobile applications for smart phones is just beginning. Screen size and methods of interaction such as touch and voice currently limit application capabilities and usability. New mobile interaction technologies such as radio-frequency identification (RFID), which tracks objects with radio waves, and biometrics should be available in the next three years. Application designers will have to incorporate innovative ways for people to interact with their devices for Web 3.0 to reach its potential.

Privacy

There is already tension between businesses and consumers about privacy. Many social networks struggle to find working business models and test the limits of users’ tolerance for public information sharing. Data security may also be a concern. With detailed information about people's lives traversing multiple machines, opportunities may abound for those with malicious intent. Innovative security protocols must emerge for consumers to adopt Web 3.0 technology.

New Search Technology

Currently, a majority of Internet searches are based on text. Limited technology exists to search sound, images and video. The ability of machines to recognize audio and video as easily as humans is a highly anticipated breakthrough that will drive a large portion of Web 3.0 innovation.

Unfortunately, this technology also creates new security problems. CAPTCHAs, the distorted pictures of words people enter to complete tasks on Web sites, will become obsolete. According to CAPTCHA.net, “A CAPTCHA is a program that protects Web sites against bots (computers that crawl the Internet pretending to be people) by generating and grading tests that humans can pass but current computer programs cannot.”

Everything protected by measures designed to distinguish human and computer interaction would be exposed. This exposure would be necessary for Web 3.0, but new security would have to emerge.

Cloud Computing and Open Networks

For Web 3.0 to function properly, open networks that can easily communicate would have to be available on remote servers, “in the cloud.” Companies like Apple that rely on closed, proprietary software such as iTunes would have to change their business model for Web 3.0. As technology shifts toward MIDs replacing computers as the primary interaction device, computer processing and analysis will have to be done on remote servers. MIDs may become a communication device connecting people to their digital hub on a server they do not know the location of and have never seen, raising additional security concerns.

Impact on Operations

A main driver of Web 3.0 will be the ability of businesses to support robust Web presences that facilitate a wider variety of tasks for people and machines. Today, the Internet is overrun with poor usability and design. Many companies do not place the necessary priority level on usability, a major obstacle for Web 3.0. Businesses that fail to properly accommodate today's usability requirements may fall too far behind to recover as Web 3.0 emerges.

Smaller companies with limited resources may struggle to survive in a world that demands Web-enabled inventory, complex fulfillment and rapid customization, all in real time. Today, large companies such as Amazon have started leasing available server capacity to anyone who needs more computing power. The barriers to entry for small businesses trying to implement complex technology may make leasing computing power standard. Providers of software, hardware and networks would have to adjust their products to accommodate open communication across all systems, a core function of Web 3.0.

Impact on Marketing

In addition to accommodating greater technology demands, businesses would have to deliver timely personalized marketing messages on a greater scale than today to survive. Consumers already ignore most non-personalized marketing, and the trend will continue as people consume more personalized, on-demand media. Marketers will have to adapt to communicating with consumers on a timely, personal level. In theory, if consumers have fewer, more critical interactions to get things done because machines are doing the work, marketers may have fewer direct interactions with consumers. The coveted opportunities to directly connect with consumers would drive a larger percentage of business and may determine the potential for a future relationship. Search marketing will change dramatically as search engines gain accuracy and move toward more complex queries in different formats. The idea of machines searching on behalf of humans managing potential revenue may be a scary prospect for marketers. However, machines wouldn't mind considering constant advertising in their decision making while humans lose interest quickly. The only certainty regarding future marketing is that the pace of strategic innovation will continue to accelerate.

The business of marketing would also have to evolve to adapt to this potential new reality. Many small- and medium-sized companies cannot handle the volume of personalized marketing that Web 2.0 commands. The speed of delivering personalized marketing on Web 3.0 would create demand for powerful software that can analyze large volumes of data and make important decisions without human interaction. Ironically, personalized marketing may have limited involvement of people in marketing because humans may no longer be able to handle the volume of data and necessary speed of delivery.

No one knows exactly what Web 3.0 will look like or if it will materialize. Regardless of which vision of the Internet becomes reality, businesses will have to adjust and react faster to the shifting technological landscape. Companies that are on the forefront of innovation in operations and marketing will dominate if they add value to the lives of their customers. At the current pace of technology breakthroughs, we may be discussing Web 4.0 sooner than we think.

Jonathan Minder (’10) has been driving Internet marketing results at a wide range of companies for almost a decade. Minder is the founder of Maximus Internet LLC, a consultancy specializing in Web strategy for small- to medium-size businesses.

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