How Portland startups pioneered the Web 2.0 movement… without even knowing it

The person who coined the term Web 2.0 was working for a Portland company. One of the very first Web 2.0 apps was built by an Israeli engineering team for a Portland company.

Okay. It’s that time again. You know the one. The one where I get fed up with everyone claiming the Portland tech scene is some sort of flyover, oh isn’t that cute sort of technology community. Long story short, consider my panties in a bunch.

Because here’s the thing… Portland actually has a couple of random claims to fame in the world of Web 2.0. How so? Well first, the person who coined the term Web 2.0 was working for a Portland company not long after she coined it. And second, one of the very first Web 2.0 apps was built by an Israeli engineering team for a Portland company—even though we didn’t know it at the time.

Don’t believe me? Well let’s go. Because oddly enough? I was there. For both of those random things.

“Web 2.0” had to come from someone

Now first, let’s talk about this whole “Web 2.0” thing. While the term was popularized and championed by Tim O’Reilly, the coining of that term is credited to someone else.

That someone is Darcy DiNucci.

Darcy’s use of the term “Web 2.0” was published in a piece called “Fragmented Future” (PDF) in April 1999.

Her use of the term deals mainly with Web design, aesthetics, and the interconnection of everyday objects with the Internet; she argues that the Web is “fragmenting” due to the widespread use of portable Web-ready devices. Her article is aimed at designers, reminding them to code for an ever-increasing variety of hardware. As such, her use of the term hints at, but does not directly relate to, the current uses of the term.

What was Darcy up to when that piece was published? Well, she was on her way to join a Portland-area startup called MedicaLogic which was trying to convince the world of healthcare that electronic medical records (EMR) were the future—and that patients would require access to those records via Web portals where they could interact with their caregivers.

I was at MedicaLogic when she was hired on—with a whole glut of ex-Netscapers and the formation of a San Francisco office. All at the height of the dotcom irrational exuberance. I got to work with Darcy because I held the auspicious title of “Interactive Marketing Manager.” Which basically meant I had to figure out the communications stuff on the Web.

Little did I know that she had coined a term that would dominate the online world far longer than its “dotcom” predecessor.

So the woman who coined “Web 2.0” worked for a Portland company. Big whoop. That doesn’t mean Portland had anything to do with actual Web 2.0 development.

Not so fast, my friend.

ProSight Portfolios: Web 2.0 before we knew what that meant

The second was a startup called ProSight—where I wound up as a marcom manager in 2001—which had built a product called ProSight Portfolios.

Now, to be fair, our development team was in Israel. But the company was headquartered here in Portland. And y’all get all uptight about who is headquartered where. So turnabout is fair play.

I got to thinking the other day about how many of things we were doing back then—now a decade ago—were awfully Web 2.0 oriented.

I mean, our product didn’t install. It ran in browser chrome like a Web app. And it made all kinds of awesome javascript and SQL calls on the fly. And helped folks visualize data in new and interesting ways.

But I was worried that maybe I was just overly nostalgic. So I caught up with my old CTO from ProSight, Mark Lawler, to get his take on what sort of Web 2.0-y things we did with ProSight Portfolios—even though we didn’t know what the hell Web 2.0 was at the time.

Sorry, Darcy.

So why was ProSight one of, if not the first, Web 2.0 app? Well I already mentioned the whole browser-based app angle. Which is huge. But there are some other aspects that made it very much a modern day app.

Here are some highlights from Mark:

Widgets & AJAX Applications: We were doing AJAX before folks were even calling it that. We had asynchronous JavaScript and XML that created such an interactive web experience our clients just assumed there was a thick client or installed ActiveX controls on their machines. Truth be told, we pushed nothing to the client other than web content. We had contextual popups, right client menus, status indicators, and interactive wizards.

Within a “module” (see we even talked like it was real client-side code) we never sent updated web pages as the changes were made on the screen in real time. Even today, 12 years later, folks still wonder what magic is running on their desktop.

Social Bookmarking: The system allowed URLs to be shared within an organization at will. It was hard to find a screen that didn’t have an icon they could push that would allow a user to share that experience with another user. URLs were generated and automatically added to e-mail messages. Users could copy/paste to other social media sites, wikis, and the like. We even allowed users to group these bookmarks in to logical steps, folders, etc. and then share those as URLs via social bookmarking. Lastly we also allowed you to store and retrieve social bookmarks from other sites as we allowed the tagging of best practices found across the internet to be referenced from our system and in context to the problem a business user was trying to solve.

But it wasn’t just the application that was akin to its Web 2.0 counterparts, it was the way we went about promoting it and managing our community.

Blogging: We had what was called at the time the “eIT-Forum.” (Wow, that’s a Web 1.0 name for a Web 2.0 capability now isn’t it?) It was a best practices blog that was much like TechCrunch today, but without the advertising. It focused exclusively on highlighting news and articles that were best practices for CIOs and their management teams.

Before WordPress and other blogging tools today, this was a home-grown system that allowed users to suggest articles, write reviews, and for readers to vote on how valuable the posting was—akin to Facebook likes. There were featured sections and articles and each blog could have links dynamically added that referenced similar articles/posts based on tags/keywords. You could easily reference articles and reviews by the same author (we supported up to 3 authors not just one). It was all Web-based and data driven without any hard-wired web-pages—all new postings were created by simply going to the appropriate Web-based forms to create/edit content. It was based on dynamic ASP and SQL Server as the database engine. At its height it had well over a thousand best practice / article entries. It had free search that was provided by a 3rd party (okay it had about 3 different versions of search as the vendors tried to figure out their revenue models as “free” didn’t pay their bills).

That’s right. They built a blog/CMS from scratch. To promote the product.

Dynamic content within the application. Best practice articles/posts from the eIT-Forum were linked in to the product as context sensitive knowledge to help business users solve problems. If a business user was focused on key performance indicators to reflect the financials and ROI of a system’s investment, if there was a yellow lightbulb icon on the page, up would pop the relevant eIT-Forum blog items that could help that user. These were not hard wired. Users and partners could connect these blog entries to any screen in the system. System’s Integrators could maintain their own “Premium” blog in a private area and only their customers who subscribed could access that premium content.

And just to ensure we don’t get too big for our britches here, Mark also provided a few things we didn’t foresee or manage to do.

Specifically… We didn’t do RSS feeds. We didn’t allow blogging from within the app. And we didn’t all tagging with the app.

And I’ll throw one more in for good measure—partly because we argued about this on a regular basis—we never took the app to the proverbial cloud. The ProSight Portfolios app ran on a Web server on the client’s concrete. We didn’t even manage the servers from a central location.

Well wait. Maybe that was a cloud of sorts. Only the Portfolios installations didn’t talk to one another.

See? We’re more Web 2.0 than you thought

Okay, okay. Those are both completely random. But interesting, right? I mean, you just became a ton more compelling at your next techie cocktail party. Or something. Maybe.

It’s like Lost Oregon, the tech version.

Well, I had to share with someone. Lucky you.

Oh c’mon. It’s not like I played the Brad Fitzpatrick LiveJournal card again.

What’s more, I’m sure there are tons of other Portland and Oregon stories—random they may be—exactly like that. So if you’ve got one, pipe up. I’d love to hear them.

(Image courtesy Stu Seeger. Used under Creative Commons.)

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  3. Anonymous Thankful Person April 29, 2011 at 5:07 pm

    Thanks for getting the record straight! Great to see this history and get some insight into the past. Portland was also the demo city for streetview technology — but more on that later.

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