July 6, 2009 By Paul W. Taylor
If you were around when the Web without a version number came to town, you'll remember that a microphone-toting Pets.com sock puppet became a symbol of the dot-com era's excesses. Sure, he got some temp work with another e-retailer after Pets.com collapsed, but it was never the same. With the help of some revisionist history, the mascot was recast as the triumph of style (a sock puppet that channeled a hip Kermit the Frog) over substance (a business model that required shipping small quantities of dog food and other bulky products over large distances).
Fast-forward to the Web 2.0 age, itself a much-hyped umbrella term that isn't aging particularly well - and not just because Web 3.0 advocates seem intent on perpetuating the myth that becoming and being digital is linear and incremental. The reality is that the commodity Internet matters because of its unique ability to exploit disruptive moments.
Given the rapidity of change and the need to take risks on the fly, CIOs, chief technology officers (CTOs) and business executives can be excused for wanting to avoid the next sock puppet mascot. Put another way, people responsible for enterprise technology worry that the new young Turks and their Web 2.0 advocacy may be as dangerous to enterprise stability as a toddler with a fork waddling toward an electrical outlet.
But the enterprise - or more properly, the federated state and local government environments - is resilient. What were once dismissed as toys are becoming platforms and platform extenders.
Not long ago, Microsoft Virtual Earth, Google Earth and their mapping Web services were dismissed by serious public-sector GIS shops, the stock-in-trade of which was expert GIS systems. Old and new were less competitors than adversaries. That was then. ESRI founder Jack Dangermond told Government Technology in its May issue how things have changed in the relationship between professional GIS and the new public-facing virtualization environments: "The public likes this, as they love traditional Rand McNally street atlases or [Autodesk] MapGuide applications. We have been working closely with both of those companies to integrate our tools with theirs."
Public love of not just the new, but also the useful can help in decision-making. Utah CTO Dave Fletcher suggested that "you can only ignore 30 million iPhone users for so long" during a conversation about Utah's iPhone apps that help users pinpoint state services or check to ensure licensed professionals are in good standing. Add a third-party, auto-updating bit of client software that effectively turns the iPhone into a universal remote control for managing everything from enterprise financials to virtual servers. The launch of the Citrix Receiver, as the client is known, came after the billionth download from Apple's App Store.
Twitter has morphed from a curiosity, to a lightweight 140-character messaging service, to a platform on which dozens of other applications now ride. Rhode Island tweets the state's daily tally of income and expenditures, and the Environmental Protection Agency about public-health concerns.
Mash-up contests Apps for Democracy and Apps for America (host of the Data.gov Challenge) are in their second iterations within a year. They're hothouse incubators for seeing what happens when public data is actually made public. Some of them - such as "Filibusted" - are immediately useful, while others are simply curious. But we've seen where curious can get you, all without the downside of having a sock puppet.
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