On Monday, after one of those evenings at work that lasts an unnecessarily long time, we launched the Alexa Web Service Platform (Please, hold back your gasps and applause until the end. Really, it's an honor just to be nominated). This is not to say that I had anything to do with this service or implementing what it does--we just sort of make things that allow other things to do what they do for the people out there in the world. We're sort of the BASF of the web services universe (anybody who gets that reference without clicking the link wins a prize. Anybody who gets that reference and also knows what a web service is...actually, then you'd be me. Never mind).
Alexa is a company that crawls the web and archives it. The upshot of the new web service is that you can write your own search engine (where "you" = "a software engineer with an understanding of what a web service is and how to use one") without actually having to do the actual searching. Is this good/great/revolutionary/going to change the world overnight? Some people think so. The idea that the next great Google-like product will be produced not by some large corporate amalgam, but instead by a guy in a garage is, I admit, more like the market universe that you and I know and love and wish we actually lived in.
I've sort of shied away from trying to explain the universe that I'm working in these days, but the new Alexa search platform is sort of a good example of what this is all about. For instance, go to the front page of Google. Go ahead, I'll be here when you get back. You are (or were, just then) looking at the user interface to the largest, fastest, and most versatile repository of information in the history of the world--a text box and two buttons, one of which is almost totally superfluous. To you, Google is a website. Hiding behind that web page, however, is an enormously complex suite of software, database applications, algorithms, guys who work on and improve the products--but you can't use any of that directly, you can only use it the way Google wants (or has time and resources) to present it to you.
This is what web services (and the general idea behind Internet, Version 2.0) are about. You could, if you were Google, allow computer programmers and/or programs access into your inner sanctum, charge them some money for it, and they could implement all manner of new websites or stand-alone desktop applications using Google's already implemented work. This takes Google from being a website and turns it into a platform on which you can compute (I don't know if anybody out there will even understand that sentence, but the concept is, strictly relatively speaking, pretty revolutionary).
Anyway, this is what Alexa has done, except that their website hasn't ever registered in your consciousness the way Google's has. Somewhere, some small subset of the IT world is working away at this, slowly exposing the underbelly and guts of the internet to the world at large. It won't be an exciting revolution--in fact I doubt anyone will notice that it happens, or really understand what the difference is between that and the web you've got already.
Oh well, back to work then.