On the road to the elusive Web 3.0 (something to do with semantics, meaning, and context rather than just data, links, and AJAX), core infrastructure is beginning to move from the edge to a center inhabited by companies such as Amazon, Salesforce.com, Joyent, and now Google with its new App Engine.
Call it Web 2.5, where the platform-as-a-service providers allow developers to create Web applications via the cloud and for users to consume them on any Web-connected device, anytime and anywhere. It eliminates what Amazon's Jeff Bezos describes as the "muck," the undifferentiated heavy lifting, such as setting up and maintaining servers, databases, storage, and networks.
It also leverages data centers from large players like Amazon and Google that were built from the ground up to support Web applications at huge, virtualized scale and with high reliability and relatively low cost. And, it creates potentially giant subscription-based revenue streams for the platform-as-a-service providers. They become utilities providing Web services to the planet and managing the high-value personal profile data.
Google App Engine, which was unveiled tonight at Google's Mountain View, Calif., headquarters, offers similar capabilities to Amazon's EC2, S3, and SimpleDB services. Google App Engine is limited to using the Python language, Google APIs, and a relatively modest amount of storage, compute cycles, and bandwidth per day currently, but you can see where this is heading.
Google could parlay its search and advertising technology, market dominance, and its infrastructure prowess into a powerful engine that runs and monetizes thousands or millions of externally developed applications.
Salesforce.com provides a more mature example today with its Force.com platform. It allows developers to write applications, mostly CRM-oriented, in a variety of languages that can run natively on the Salesforce.com software platform and data centers.
In many ways it is the Microsoft model--you need a subscription (license in the old days) to the platform to run your application. In this case, "run" means that Salesforce.com provides developers all the software and hardware services in exchange for a fee, which is based on specific metrics, such as Web services calls.
Microsoft hasn't yet shown its cards in the platform-as-a-service arena. Nor has the object of its affection, Yahoo. Microsoft has talked about SQL Server Data Services and the grand synchronization mesh, but it hasn't revealed any plans for an end-to-end hosted platform-as-a-service for developing and serving applications from the cloud. Mary Jo Foley has some insight on that topic.
Web 3.0 as envisioned by Tim Berners-Lee is not around the corner, but it is busily percolating. In parallel, platform-as-a-service is evolving, the plateau of Web 2.5. When the two meet, Web 3.0 will have arrived.