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Seven seers of the online future

Seven seers of the online future

Distinguished observers of business on the Web talk about where it's going and how to get there ahead of the crowd. Included in this discussion are Michael Kolowich, Michael Dertouzos, Patricia Seybold, Steven Telleen, Gordon Bell, Watts Wacker and Bob Metcalfe By Scott Kirsner"If you were responsible for developing the Web resource within an organisation, what changes would you be planning for over the next five to 10 years?"

That's the question that we put to seven highly regarded observers of business on the Web. These seers see many things, from the move to tiered pricing and the need for larger IS budgets, to a blurring of the line between internal and external communication, and the growth of Web-based conversations about a company's very soul. So read on, and enjoy the forecasts of the best and the brightest of Internet sages.

Case one: Michael Kolowich

Kolowich is the president and CEO of Individual (www.individual.com), an information provider that delivers customised industry news to corporate intranets and runs the consumer- oriented NewsPage.

One of the most important things to look at is how multiple classes of service are likely to develop and, in fact, must develop on the Internet to make it a truly useful, reliable resource.

The traffic jams and the degradation in performance and reliability at certain hours of the day are well documented. In order for the Internet and the World Wide Web to be truly useful tools, service providers, content companies and customers need to work together on ways that take the wonderful, universal connectivity and standards of the Internet and apply to them the kind of high reliability, availability and performance that business customers need, demand and should be willing to pay for.

Right now, many companies are covering that by saying, "Gee, a lot of our applications need to be intranet applications and need to be on our site because that's the only way I can guarantee end-to-end reliability and availability." But I believe that we have to develop the notion of "virtual intranets" that make it possible to access information on remote servers so that it really feels like the server is on your company's premises.

There are a number of different approaches to that problem. One is for Internet service providers to increasingly provide parallel private networks that still use Internet standards but that route that traffic over private, secure or lower-demand routes. Another is [to create] other ways to differentiate high-priority and first-class traffic. I mean, we're running the Internet like it's a discount airline - all the passengers get the same kind of seat, have to carry their own bags and travel on standby. That's simply not acceptable to the general business population.

Case two: Michael Dertouzos

Dertouzos is the director of the MIT Laboratory for Computer Science (www.lcs.mit.edu) and author of the book What Will Be: How the New World of Information Will Change Our Lives.

The first thing that I would realise is that the biggest limits before me are not technical, but rather a lack of human agreements [concerning commercial transactions]. I would start immediately to get together common interest groups within my organisation and across other organisations - even my competitors - and I would develop the simplest "e-forms", a word I've coined, that would save everyone time and money through automation.

Let me put a little flesh and blood behind this. If we had a wholesale produce company buying and selling oranges and things, I would get together with all the buyers and sellers of produce and say, "Let's devise a simple e-form with a field for what I want to buy, a field for quality, a field for size."

We'd agree on about 10 things. It's very simple. You don't need agents, you don't need robotics and you don't need virtual reality bodysuits for this.

Once you've agreed on a few simple things, it becomes incredible how much time and money you can save. Let's say you want to buy two metric tons of oranges, quality triple-A, size 2.5in or greater, minimum bid price of so much per ton. You push it onto your internal Net to see if anybody there agrees or disagrees, and then you push it onto the outside Net. It gets translated into Italian, Spanish, gets pushed down to Italy, Spain, California, south of the border. Computers there, at other wholesalers who've agreed with you, respond instantly without consulting their owners if the order is small and give you their fixed bid prices. It's all automated. The small stuff will become routine.

If the order is perceived as big in Italy, it pops up in Italian to the person there. And he says, "My god, that's a big order for my firm. I'd better underbid." And he goes live and underbids.

Every company could do this with outside groups. But there's an equal or greater amount of money to be saved and efficiency to be achieved within the company. I would ask what information flows, how it could flow, how we could save money. You'd probably find that you wanted certain information posted once a week that shows for every unit what the orders have been, what the inventory levels have been and what the revenues have been. People could access that information any time they needed to. They could establish standing procedures that would use this data, read what everyone else was doing and plan their purchasing or shipping.

Individual executives and managers would be able to tune all their procedures and automate them so that they'd be getting all the information they need to run the company.

Case three: Patricia Seybold

Seybold is the president and CEO of the Patricia Seybold Group (www.psgroup.com). She is the author of Customers.com: Making It Easy for Customers to Do Business with You.

The most obvious things that you should be considering are bandwidth, security, throughput and capacity - making sure that you're going to be able to handle the hundreds of thousands of people outside and inside your organisation who want to use your Web resources.

The other piece I would focus on is making sure that you have the tools and technologies to be able to do a lot of profiling-dynamically generating stuff in response to employees' and customers' profiles and preferences. The important investment there is that your company is going to need to maintain that customer profile information itself, and [the volume of that information] may grow to be very big. Keeping track of every click that everybody makes is a big job, as is trying to make sense of [that activity] and mine it for good information. What I'm saying is you can outsource anything - fulfilment, transaction processing, whole chunks of your value chain. But you should not outsource customer profiling and the process of storing and managing information about your customers.

It may be that customers maintain their own profiles and that they may become much more stingy about what they let you capture about them. But in developing a relationship with the customer, you're going to be gathering a whole lot more information about what that customer wants from your company, and that's not something you want to outsource. You want that information tightly integrated with all your other systems, so you should be keeping it in-house.

Another issue I see already arising that will only grow in importance is that the customer is only going to give you information in exchange for value. I'm not going to tell you about all my investments, for example, when I come to your financial services site unless you're going to do something good for me - alert me when my stock prices go up or give me some retirement advice. Savvy Web developers are figuring out that they have to learn what customers value and then give it to them in return for information about those customers.

While front-end design is easy, the hard work and the part that tends to cost the most money over the long haul is connecting the processes that happen when the customer interacts through your Web site with the rest of your organisation: integrating large legacy systems across various departments and fiefdoms. All of that takes time and money and work, but what I like about it is that people begin to see that it's a no-brainer once they get started. It's kind of like a tip-of-the-iceberg problem - the stuff at the front end of the Web site is the tip of the iceberg, and everything you have to do on the back end to get your systems working efficiently to use the information you gather is the rest of that big iceberg.

Case four: Steven Telleen

Telleen is the director of strategy at Intranet Partners (www.ip.com), an intranet consultancy.

One of the most interesting things that I can see happening over the next five to 10 years is that nobody can even begin to predict the products that are going to come out. You can predict some general paths, but it's sort of like what Isaac Asimov said about some of the science fiction books he and others were writing in the 1950s: "The one thing that we missed was computers."

Nobody ever saw what was going to happen with this. We're in one of those phases where we are limited primarily by our imaginations and our experience, and it's impossible to see what the products are going to be.

That is why a solid information architecture based on encouraging and managing diversity, as opposed to containing diversity, has become so important. In the past, many companies took the short-term, easy solution by standardising on a single vendor's products for the basic infrastructure. They, in effect, transferred much of the responsibility for developing their information architecture to the product vendor. That is a dangerous course when truly revolutionary products and whole new approaches are emerging.

First, the information architecture is likely to become the major competitive advantage for many businesses, which means that off-the-shelf architectures are a competitive disadvantage. Second, all vendors with product families large enough to supply most of an architecture are based on proprietary protocols and APIs.

Case five: Gordon Bell

Bell is a senior researcher in Microsoft's Telepresence Research Group (www.research. microsoft.com/research/BARC/telepresence).

For most companies, I believe the issue is failing to see the implications of the Web for their businesses. That is not the problem of the webmaster but rather the plight of the corporation. However, it is the webmaster's responsibility to inform the company of opportunities. I would suggest that one support all forms of radical apps that show promise in changing the very nature of the business. Experiment!

Case six: Watts Wacker

Wacker is the eighth person to bear the title "resident futurist" at SRI Consulting, a division of SRI International (www.sri.com). His latest book is The 500-Year Delta: What Happens After What Comes Next.

Everyone's trying to figure out how to make money on the Web. Well, I would say the argument is that you're not going to ever make money on it - that it's not about making money. It's about providing myths. When I talk about myth provision, what I mean is that it's getting harder and harder for companies to differentiate their products in a tangible way.

I defy anyone to show me the difference between a Marriott and a Hyatt Regency hotel. In the future, the differentiation will be based more on what you believe. A Web site can be dramatically demonstrative of that. It's more than just interactivity, it's iterative. To have a true relationship, you have to have growth, sustained involvement and reciprocity. A Web site allows for growth and sustained involvement (what I call "iteratives"), but it's also a way to put in reciprocity, which is hard to achieve in other parts of the company. You can say, "write me a letter or call customer service", but that doesn't get you all the way there.

The Web allows you to have an iterative debate with your customers and your prospects. The heart of it is that it gets you deeper into a person. The only way to do that is to have a relationship. Growth, sustained involvement and reciprocity. You can't do all three with any other tool.

The whole idea is, "be, and everything will come to you". Be the essence of your beliefs, and the money will come to you. Make a Web site where the debate about the soul of the company is going on with employees as well as prospects. That, to me, is much more powerful than just "I'm going to put my catalogue on the Net" or "I'm going to sell my goods on the Net".

Case seven: Bob Metcalfe

Metcalfe is vice president for technology at ARN's parent, International Data Group (www.idg.com), as well as a columnist for the magazine InfoWorld. In 1973, Metcalfe helped invent Ethernet technology. In 1979, he started the networking company 3Com. Today, Metcalfe calls himself "a technology pundit".

I think the Web is well exploited on intranets - that is, serving employees - but the long-term focus will be on extranets-serving customers. The big part of it is going to be external: customer automation, self-service, ordering, account maintenance.

IS people traditionally are inward-focused, and they are used to developing systems that they can force employees to use. But the Web is not like that. IS people can't rely on coercion so much in the future to get their primary users to use their systems. They're going to have to induce them because [those users are going to be] customers, and customers only do what they want, not what you tell them to do. And that's a different mind-set for IS.

IS is going to have to do a better job of justifying and explaining where that money is going and also of repositioning IS as more fundamental to what companies do. As we're going to an external model, new rules and maybe even new kinds of IS people will be required. It may be people with more of a marketing bent, more of a customer service bent-in general, people more connected to other functions within the company. What's really happening is that these other functions - marketing, sales, fulfilment, payments, collections, shipping - will be more Web-intensive.

IS is basically getting its wish: It has always wanted to be more important. Of course, all your troubles begin when you get what you want.


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