The net's next big thing

Today Google, Twitter and Facebook are among the most popular sites on the net. But what will tomorrow’s online crazes be, and what will they do? JV Chamary looks at the things that will change our use of the web…
24th September 2009

Between February 2008 and 2009 the number of people visiting the Twitter website grew by a staggering 1382 per cent. Last year it was the social network for tech-savvy web heads; today, celebs like Oprah Winfrey can brag about the number of online followers they have.

Facebook, originally a way for students to connect with each other, is now so mainstream it has acquired over 250 million active users - 3.7 per cent of the world's population. And Google, of course, is the most visited site on the web.

So what's the secret of their success? Numerous factors affect whether a site becomes popular or not. But Google, Twitter and Facebook do have something in common: they offered the right service at the right time. Twitter, for instance, wasn't the first to let people share short messages through a social network: the now defunct Pownce had better features, while Jaiku fails to compete despite being backed by Google. Twitter succeeded because it offered real-time updates about what's going on when the world wanted to know.

But what's next? Which sites are waiting just round the corner to turn into the net's next big thing? Well, the following three web-based services are the ones Focus predicts you'll be using in the next year or two, and each exploits the 'semantic web', the next stage in the evolution of the internet.

Semantics relates to the meaning of words, and tomorrow's websites will be able to recognise and respond to language in the same way a person would. Championed by Tim Berners-Lee, the World Wide Web's inventor, it will revolutionise the way we use the web.

THE NEXT GOOGLE

Wolfram Alpha

What is it?

Wolfram Alpha is an answer engine, a search tool that returns facts and figures instead of a long list of results. Unlike conventional search engines, which equate importance with popularity (Google ranks a site according to how many other web pages link to it), Wolfram Alpha looks for information in a database of carefully curated knowledge. It then tries to compute a sensible answer, which is why it's billed as a 'computational knowledge engine'.

How did we manage without it?

Say you want to learn about the International Space Station, which is often abbreviated to ISS. Googling 'ISS' gets you over 25 million results, including Internet Security Systems and International Schools Services, neither of which you're interested in.

How will it change things?

Tap 'ISS' into Wolfram Alpha's search box and it replies with, 'Assuming “ISS” is a spacecraft' before providing you with some facts relevant to that assumption, for instance the ISS's current position over the Earth and the date it was launched. Wolfram Alpha developed from the maths software Mathematica, so it can also compute complex calculations and conversions, do statistics and plot graphs. Ask about 'US vs UK' and it returns a table comparing statistics, including geographic size, population density and GDP.

Why is it the next big thing?

Wolfram Alpha belongs to the next generation of 'smarter search engines', web-based tools that have a grasp of semantics. Its closest competitor is Google Squared, an experimental search engine that presents results in spreadsheet form. Instead of taking a guess at what you're looking for based on keywords, semantic search engines try to interpret the meaning of a question and then offer an appropriate answer. This means that we'll gradually have to change the way we search for information online, shifting from keywords to coherent queries.

When can I use it?

It's ready today, although its database is still a little sparse and often says, 'Wolfram Alpha isn't sure what to do with your input'. But as more information is added, Wolfram Alpha will soon become the first resource you turn to when you need answers, not search results.

THE NEXT FIREFOX

Ubiquity

What is it?

Ubiquity lets you take shortcuts while using the web. Instead of going to a separate site to use a service, it brings that site's features to you. It's an add-on for the Firefox web browser, an interface for interacting with the web that makes it easier for you to combine different services into a 'mash-up'. Not only can you use other people's mash-ups, Ubiquity is so simple that you can very easily create your own.

How did we manage without it?

Imagine you're arranging for your parents to stay at the Ritz Hotel in London. They've never been to the big city so you decide to send them a map of the hotel's location. After launching a browser and logging-in to your email account, you open another browser window to find the hotel's post code. Then you copy and paste the post code into Google Maps, save an image of the map to your hard drive, then go back to your email and attach the image to your message. Phew!

How will it change things?

Ubiquity cuts out most of these steps. Just type 'Ritz Hotel London' into your email message and highlight the text, pressing and on your keyboard to open a Ubiquity text box. Type 'map this', click to enlarge the image then press 'Insert map in page'. This adds the image to your email without you having to spend time navigating to other sites.

Why is it the next big thing?

Ubiquity is another application that can process semantics, so it understands commands delivered in everyday language and carries out the appropriate task. It's clever enough to interpret 'this', in the above example, to mean the text that you're highlighting. It's likely that other browsers will steal this feature and some may even extend it. Google are currently building an entire operating system around their Chrome browser, so it's possible that they'll incorporate shortcuts to offline applications too.

When can I use it?

Although Ubiquity is already available to try out, the software is still an 'alpha' version, which means it's not yet ready for public consumption. A more stable 'beta' version (with fewer bugs) should be available in a year or so.

THE NEXT FACEBOOK

Google Wave

What is it?

Google Wave is a tool for communicating in real-time. Think of it as instant messaging for the 21st century. But while instant messaging is largely limited to text, Wave conversations, imaginatively referred to as 'waves', let you insert media from a variety of sources, such as Facebook status updates and Twitter messages, or photos, videos and games. As Wave runs in your browser like webmail, you can access it from anywhere with an internet connection.

How did we manage without it?

Tom and Dick are organising a birthday party for Harry. They live in different towns so they're sending emails back and forth, attaching photos of potential venues and maps of routes. Harry's wife Sally joins in the planning later on. She has her own ideas, but doesn't want to repeat a suggestion that's already been discussed. In order to do that she'll have to ask Tom and Dick to forward dozens of emails, before sifting through them all to identify the different trains of thought and various decisions.

How will it change things?

The trio could use Wave to plan the party online. Each message in the conversation can be edited by any participant, which makes each wave a bit like a Wikipedia article. Sally can catch up on the conversation by using the 'playback' option to replay the initial exchange between Tom and Dick. The three organisers can also let Harry's friends join the wave, to get their thoughts and find out whether they can attend.

Why is it the next big thing?

Wave includes a semantic spellchecker that automatically corrects mistakes based on the context in which a word appears. For example, it would replace 'desert' with 'dessert' in the sentence “Birthday cake for desert?” Wave can also be extended with external applications. By adding the Twave application, you can add Twitter updates to your wave. This feature makes managing multiple social networks much easier. It puts everything in one place, and it's what will probably crown Google Wave the new social-network king.

When can I use it?

You'll be able to sign up for Wave by the end of the year. Until then you can get a feel for the software through the rival 'central network' tool FriendFeed (http://friendfeed.com), which does similar things, but has fewer features.

WHAT'S HOT NOW

Everybody else seems to be using them. Are you? Here are the three online tools that the world is currently going crazy for...

Twitter

What is it?

Twitter lets you share short text messages. These 'tweets' can be anything up to 140 characters long, which is why the service is sometimes called the 'SMS of the internet'. As a micro-blogging tool, Twitter is a simple way to share thoughts, links, and to tell the world what you had for tea.

How do I use it?

There are plenty of fun things you can do with Twitter besides tweeting about trivial things. But its stand-out feature, the thing that made it the envy of even Google, is its real-time search. This was the major contributor to Twitter's success. It facilitates 'citizen journalism', allowing the public to send messages that break and spread news stories. Twitter provides up-to-the-minute updates during emergencies and key events, such as the recent protests against the Iran election results. Instead of having to wait hours for Google to update its list of web pages, Twitter gives a global snapshot of what people are talking about right now.

Opera Unite

What is it?

Opera Unite turns your home computer into a web server, allowing you to share files with friends without having to upload them to an online storage site. Before now, if you wanted to share a file that was too big to send via email, you would need to upload it to a third-party web server. Unite cuts out the middleman by letting others download things directly from your PC.

How do I use it?

Unite's features are built into the latest version of the Opera web browser. Download Opera 10 and enable Unite by clicking its symbol, then give your new server a name (this creates a URL address to share with friends) and set a password. You'll need to always leave your computer switched on so that others can access files at any time. Friends can browse your photo albums, listen to your music library and even leave notes on your 'Fridge'.

Spotify

What is it?

Spotify is a music-on-demand service for streaming songs over the internet. Users can choose from over three million tracks, create playlists of their favourite tunes and save shortcuts for sharing with others. Although Spotify utilises peer-to-peer technology, it doesn't let you download music.

How do I use it?

Install the Spotify music player on your computer, search for a specific band, track or album, and press play. The service is free if you can put up with an advertisement every few songs, otherwise it's £9.99 per month for ad-free audio. Some say Spotify might be what will save the music industry from online piracy.

JV Chamary is reviews editor of Focus