Everyone’s so excited about Web 2.0 and AJAX. OK, Google maps is cool; but personally I’m still finding lots of exciting things that can be done solely within the space of classic HTML and basic forms. Most of the interesting services are those that don’t depend on fancy UIs, but instead find new and interesting ways to present information or services. For example,
Book Reservations at My Local Library
No longer do I have to hunt through the stacks, then beg a librarian to look downstairs for a missing book after filling out a paper form with a two-inch pencil. I find it in the online catalog, request it online, and pick it up a couple of days later off a shelf where it’s waiting for me. I can get any book in the system from any of several dozen libraries. I’m using the library a lot more, and reading a lot more books.
I couldn’t stand my local video stores (including the local BlockBuster). Poor selection, bad service, inconvenient hours, and just an all around depressing experience. Now I just request the movies I want to watch online, and they show up in the mail. Not only do I not worry about late fees. I don’t even have to go back to the store to return the things, ever. Plus I get to keep a long queue of movies I want to watch which I can add to and edit at any time. so I never forget about a movie I want to see. Being able to fit a movie into an envelope that can be sent in first class mail for about $0.39 has a lot to do with this business model; but otherwise it never would have worked without the Internet.
Honorable Mention: NetFlix (which pioneered the concept, but doesn’t have as many of the DVDs I want to see as BlockBuster)
Can you believe at one point in time I actually turned on the TV just to find out what the weather was going to be like that day? And then I’d wait through a commercial or two and several minutes of weather for places I didn’t care about just to find out which coat to wear that day? How 1980s. Now I just have a bookmark to my local Brooklyn weather I load whenever I need the weather.
One of the earliest supersites and still one of the best. Amazon bills itself as the world’s largest bookstore, and judged by selection that’s true. I can find almost any book in print in the United States at Amazon, usually at a discount. Amazon increases the availabilitty of niche content that used too be hard to impossible to find.
If finding books in print used to be hard before Amazon, finding books out of print was nigh on impossible. It could take months to locate a specific title. Discontinued computer parts were even harder to find. Sure you could find some things at the local swap meets, but could you find the things you actually needed? Rarely. Now almost anything you might need, someone has and is willing to sell on eBay.
New York City Bird Report
OK, this one’s a little idiosyncratic; but it’s definitely a site I check every day. It used to be you had to call a special phone number, or know the right people to find out what was being seen where. A Blue Grosbeak could come and go before you ever heard about it. Now we can easily see who’s seeing what when in time to find it ourselves. Plus there’s a race to see who finds what first. It’s made birding local parks a lot more exciting.
iTunes Movie Store
I won’t buy RIAA songs from the iTunes Music Store any more than I’ll buy their CDs from Amazon; but I’m quite intrigued by the iTunes Movie Store; and I hope it catches on. I’ve already used it to catch up on a couple of episodes of Lost I missed when they first aired. On the down side, though, the picture quality is extremely poor. It’s worse than the episodes I can find on BitTorrent, and much, much worse than the season 1 DVDs I rented from BlockBuster. Hopefully this will improve over time.
It’s amazing just how effective Google can be. One day I was sitting in my school office when one of my office mate’s students stopped in with a bug in his Windows program. Now I know little to nothing about Windows programming, but the student was desperate so I agreed to try to help him debug the problem. He was getting some incomprehensible error message from Windows so I suggested we type it into Google and see what we could see. 20 seconds later we had the exact answer to his problem.
Google can’t find everything, and it’s no replacement for the local library; but the local library’s no replacement for Google either. Answering questions in 60 seconds that used to take hours to days of expert attention is just one way search engiones have changed the world.
Quite simply, the best encyclopedia on the planet, period. Nothing else can match it’s breadth of coverage on topics from Britannia to Britney Spears, from Christianity to Christina Aguilera. Nothing else is as current or as deep. It has become my default destination any time I want to start learning about almost anything.
Perhaps I’m stretching this one, since Wikis are really moving into Web 2.0 space, but this is old enough and cool enough that I’ll include it here.
There are only about 600 species of birds that regularly show up in the lower 48 states, and maybe another 200 that are accidentals. It’s possible for one field guide to cover them all, especially if you limit it to one state or region. By contrast, there are over 1000 species of butterflies in the same are, over 10,000 species of moths, and lord knows how many grasshoppers, beetles, spiders and “bugs” to be identified. Consequently identifying all but the most obvious and most familiar species used to be a task solely for the experts. Not any more.
What the Roger Tory Peterson’s Field Guide to the Birds did for birding, BugGuide.net has done for arthropod enthusiasts. While it’s not exactly a field guide, it is now possible to take high quality digital photographs in the field, upload them to BugGuide later, and expect them to be identified. I’ve learned more about bugs from site than I ever thought possible. It’s fascinating for everyone from novices to experts.
Honorable mention: Moth photographers group.
The Internet’s lubricated the wheels of commerce (and other activities) enough that a lot of things that used to be impossible are now possible. It’s not like any of the above were completely impossible before the Web, but they weren’t practical. Now they are. The hype arrived before the reality, but the reality is starting to come. The Web’s making a noticeable improvement in the quality of my life, and I expect it to continue changing it. What about your life? What’s the best thing Web 1.0’s done for you?