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AOL to developers: Put passion over profit

Q&A The Web portal's Edwin Aoki talks about the impact Web applications have had in the enterprise and what trends are emerging.

AOL's Edwin Aoki
AOL's Edwin Aoki ZDNet UK

Edwin Aoki is a technology fellow at AOL, and an alumnus of Apple and of Netscape, where he worked on enterprise products as well as the Communicator browser.

On Thursday, Aoki spoke at the Future Of Web Apps conference in London, alongside figures such as Digg's Kevin Rose and Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg. He urged developers to create applications out of passion and for the community, rather than just doing it for money. spoke to Aoki just after his speech, to talk about the impact Web applications have had in the enterprise and what trends are emerging.

In the speech you just gave, you suggested that developers should develop applications out of passion, rather than for money. Is this not an idea that is more applicable to the consumer, rather than the enterprise, developer community?

Aoki: Folks have been able to take whatever their passion or their expertise is and apply the technology to writing that, or to disseminating that, through whatever organization their interest is in. We see that a lot in nonprofits, but we also see that a lot in the enterprise.

Wikis are a great example of a technology that often comes in because some folks inside the enterprise want a more efficient way of spreading knowledge and information, and all of a sudden it becomes this great corporate resource. Messaging is another example of something that, we found at our AIM network, often starts with people wanting to have a better way to communicate inside the enterprise. They bring that in, and all of a sudden they find it's a way they can communicate not only inside the intranet, but also with customers and suppliers as well.

I think it is one of these things where the ubiquity and the low cost and the ease of deployment of these technologies really is the supreme environment where you can bring that into an enterprise, just as you can bring that to consumers or even a non-profit.

Those are examples where a trend started in the consumer sector and moved into the enterprise. Is that going to continue?

Aoki: I think that enterprise software is a slightly different beast. I used to do some of that in my time at Netscape and typically they have fairly long sales cycles, they're centrally administered, they are deployed by an enterprise IT department on behalf of a company, and a lot of those folks are starting to embrace those technologies and bring that in on a corporate level as well.

But I think the rapidity of adoption really does start with individuals. It may start from a consumer focus, and it may start from more of a professional focus, but the common thread is that it does tend to start with a person or a small team or a department that is really interested in deploying that technology.

How much do you think the global financial crisis is going to hit the developer community?

Aoki: We're already starting to see, in some sense, the capital markets and some of the venture funding start to be more cautious. Certainly in (Silicon) Valley, there is still an outgrowth of the lessons learned during the first dot-com bust. People are being a lot more cautious. They're scrutinizing the balance sheet a little bit more; they're looking more for those revenue ideas.

I think the rapidity of adoption really does start with individuals. It may start from a consumer focus, and it may start from more of a professional focus, but the common thread is that it does tend to start with a person or a small team or a department that is really interested in deploying that technology.

At the same time, a lot of the things I was talking about are fueled really not out of money, and they don't cost that much money to start. Both within AOL and with a number of the folks here at the conference, they just start something on a weekend. And they say well, they'd love to just try out how that works. And they find that it's an idea that catches on, and it's an idea that resonates with people, and all of a sudden they're writing something that is larger than they imagined it would be.

We had products that were launched that way in AOL, from the initiative of an individual engineer. We've had enterprise initiatives that have launched that way, because somebody said there's got to be a better way to...whatever.

Such as?

Aoki: Well, I mentioned wikis earlier. Our internal wiki was started by one of our engineers as a way to incorporate a more decentralized approach to documenting the kinds of things that we do. It's been completely embraced by the organization--hundreds of thousands of pages--and it's now an IT-supported function. We have an internal search agent that goes through our intranet that helps aggregate and organize all the information from our myriad sites--that was an employee-started function.

A lot of these things start off as an idea and all of a sudden the organization realizes, hey, this is really helping, this is a great productivity boost. How can we bring this in, how can we help manage that, how can we incorporate it into our corporate systems and bring that into our security and enterprise policies in a way that's not going to stifle that innovation, but in a way that's going to help it grow and help nurture that.

A lot of organizations have been very cool on social-networking sites such as Facebook. How will social networking win over the enterprise crowd, given that many such sites don't yet have the perceived longevity of instant-messaging applications?

Aoki: Social networking--whether it's Facebook or LinkedIn or any specific instance of it--the notion of the social network is going to stick around. You mentioned instant messaging and, if you reduce that back to its bare bones, you have a social graph, that's just graphed through that buddy list there. And that morphed into the Facebooks and LinkedIns of the world, where you're able to check that and see that a little more transparently. That will morph into something else again, I'm sure, as our understanding of those technologies matures.

So it's there. It's something that's part of that. IBM did a study, again looking at wikis in particular, in terms of the number of people that contribute to a wiki and the number of people that are really involved in that. You can trace domain knowledge through that, by looking at who it is contributing to an area, who the comments are coming from, where the edits are going. Wikipedia has a similar phenomenon on the global consumer web.

But again, that also forms a sort of social network, because you're able to understand who your domain experts are in a particular area. If you feed that out onto a graph, you have some additional metadata on your organization there.

So I do think that those kinds of things will evolve organically out of the way technology is used, and frankly I don't think that we know how that will manifest.

A number of organizations have tried to have these social networks on the intranet, creating internal social networks. I don't know that that works unless you have a very large organization, because the value of a social network is in being able to tease out some of these relationships that aren't necessarily obvious. If you have 25 people and know what everybody does and what their skills are, a social network isn't going to layer a whole lot more on top of that.

But for larger enterprises or geographically distributed enterprises, they can have a lot of opportunities where that network is able to expose information that's not necessarily obvious. And I think that IT organizations will realize that and understand that there's value there.

Perhaps one reason instant messaging became more acceptable in organizations was that the networks became interoperable. But this is still not the case with social networking. How important do you think interoperability and the portability of personal data between sites will be? We haven't yet seen the fruits of initiatives such as OpenSocial, for instance.

Aoki: Not yet, but these things take time. There's been a number of folks who have been working very hard on data-portability standards and protocols. Obviously there's that balance between what you want to expose and (conceal), and there are privacy concerns about that, making sure that we have iron-clad authentication and authorization that goes with that.

We talk a lot about data portability and its need, and it's clearly an important aspect for the industry, but it's easy to overlook how deep that rabbit-hole goes sometimes. In order to have good data portability, you need to have strong authorization. In order to have that, you need to have a strong notion of authentication, and in order to have strong authentication, you need to have identity management that everybody agrees on. These are frankly initiatives that people have been working on for the best part of the last decade.

I think that it will come--it's really important--but really what we're starting to see is the depth of how much there is to solve.

David Meyer of ZDNet UK reported from London.

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