In its first decade, the Web evolved from a focus on document storage and retrieval to an application and storage platform. This is a radical transformation. Two things drove this evolution. First, the Internet decoupled application location and access. It doesn't matter where the servers are, because the Internet provides ubiquitous access, enabling tremendous growth of new consumer Web applications. Second, plummeting storage costs and the emergence of network-wide search engines fueled the information explosion.

This explosion of information and applications on the Web has led to a conundrum. In a word: clutter. We may know what we're looking for and that it's out there, somewhere. We may even have found it in the past. But we can never seem to find it when we need it. Applications are difficult to remember and use. Information is difficult to find. Moreover, the two don't integrate, so making use of the information even if you do find it is hard. Witness our "dependency" on search.

Still, the quest for new and better ways, and thus the evolution, continues. In the middle of the Web's second decade, a third wave of innovation is occurring. Having moved from document access to application access, the third wave is about simplicity, context, and unification. How does the consumer Web become fundamentally easier to use? That's the next burning question -- and challenge.

Not unexpectedly, this challenge is heeded from two opposite directions. Small companies, mostly newcomers, are taking a fresh look at old problems and developing innovative new solutions. Big companies are making acquisitions and consolidating, gradually merging previously disparate offerings with the goal of creating unified experiences through one-stop shopping.

Take a look at travel sites such as Expedia, Orbitz, Yahoo!, and SideStep. They all want to provide you with a lot more than just integrating air travel, car rental, and hotels. The "small company" in the group, Sidestep, has a very nice user interface. It's simple and interactive, demonstrating innovation from a little guy. Sidestep is also innovating with its business model: an ad-supported model, as opposed to transaction fees.

The consolidation phase of the Internet started a while back and will continue to gain momentum. Simplicity, context, and unification will be the backdrop. launched search service A9. It continues to branch out with ever more stores. I imagine it won't be long before it launches some kind of travel service. Shopping, travel, and information, integrated in one unified, simple experience. That must be what it aims to do. Yahoo! is no different.

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