No, Mr. O’Reilly, it’s not all back-end

Tim O’Reilly, in a nice rebuttal to the flame up of silly "Web 3.0" noise over the last few days, gets much right. I agree with everything up until he writes:

Google is the pre-eminent Web 2.0 success story, and it’s all back-end! Every major web 2.0 play is a back-end story. It’s all about building applications that harness network effects to get better the more people use them–and you can only do that with a richer back end.

Um, no. I agree with his reminder that Web 2.0 does not equal some specific technology (ahem, DHTML/Ajax), but to say that front-end magic has nothing to do with the Web’s 2.0 resurgence, or, more specifically, that front-end technology has nothing to do with Google’s darling status just doesn’t cut it for me.

[Oddpost and] Gmail reminded most of us that you shouldn’t need a page refresh to read your web mail, and that the improved efficiently is good, welcome, and here to stay. Sure, it’s cool their back-end provides unlimited storage and great spam filtering, but it’s the great interface that gets people’s hearts beating and them coming back for more. [G]Maps noted that in the real world you can slide the map left and right in front of your eyes, and that offering the same direct-manipulation interface online is better than the one-tile-at-a-time approach. Sure, Satellite and Hybrid views are cool, but without drag and drop the game hasn’t changed. (TerraServer and others offered Satellite view since the last 90’s at least, but it wasn’t a gamechanger.) Tags are cool, and he’s correct that Flickr is largely a network-effect play — but Flickr also showed that reducing the cost of adding tags (by not requiring a refresh) made for more tagging, and therefore more network effect. Google Docs (previously Writely) is all about complex front-end engineering.

I grant that these services are made possible by increasingly sophisticated back-end systems, and that other Web 2.0 systems such as Last.fm or Ad Sense are fundamentally back-end systems. But to say that the world’s Web 2.0 fascination is related exclusively to clever back-end shenanigans misses the mark. My point is that you wouldn’t recognize Web 2.0 without the glamour and power of today’s front-end interfaces and techniques..

It’s never been a better time to be doing front-end engineering. DHTML/Ajax is not Web 2.0, but it’s hard for me to imagine the recent resurgence without it.