I'm sometimes asked where I think the Net is headed. I'm only an amateur futurist, but I'll take my best shot at an answer.
There is much I see ahead. Broad access, reliable functionality, an end to computer literacy as a prerequisite for a successful Internet experience and I think most importantly, real-time, face-to-face connections between people. But to me, the thing that is most interesting, and I think most revealing as we ponder the strategic directions Net initiatives should take is what I don't see:
What a welcome change this will be. Nothing is more infuriating than the process of logging onto the web through a browser, entering a URL (what could be clumsier?), waiting for the page to download, and hoping that you don't crash your computer in the process.
Today's Net access is analogous to starting a car with a hand crank. Well, the good news is it won't be that way for much longer: The online counterpart to the electric starter is coming. The Internet that will be part of our professional and personal lives within a few years will be integrated, failure-proof and simple.
It's already happening. Here are a few examples:
The Net-Enabled Household
You unload your groceries. As you put the food in your TCP/IP-connected refrigerator, it scans the bar code on the packaging and records each item It logs your food in. When you take an item out (a quart of milk let's say), it logs it out. You put it back. It logs it back in. Then out. Then in.
Until one day it determines that a longer than acceptable period of time has passed since you logged the milk out without logging it back in. So it puts up a message on its flat screen embedded in the door asking if you're out of milk. You take the ultra high-tech pointing device of the future (it's located between your thumb and middle finger) and touch "Yes" on the panel.
Then it asks, "Shall I order some more?" Yes again, and the refrigerator sends an order over its Net connection to the store. Of course, first it tells you that it's calculated your milk usage and determined that a substantial cost savings can be realized if you buy half-gallons instead of quarts, assuring you that you have sufficient refrigerator "floor space" to hold the larger container.Science fiction? Electrolux (known in the states as Frigidaire) and, more recently, ICL, have produced it.
Please Touch That Dial
Let's say you're watching a tennis match. You like Pete's tennis racket you see, or Lindsay's shoes, or the umbrella shading the umpire. You take your pointing device and touch the thing you like on your screen. Up pops a message (digitized voice if you prefer) asking if you'd like to buy the product or display information now, or store the request until the match is over.
Science fiction? J.C. Penney and MIT have this in prototype today.
Lovely Rita Online
You park your car and put some money in the meter. The meter transmits the information to a centralized data storage area, and the information is then communicated over the Net to administrators, maintenance and repair teams, and of course to parking enforcement officers.
When your meter expires, an alert is sent out with a notification, pinpointing meter number and location; a municipal revenue opportunity parked at that location.
The meters also record tampering activity, alerting police when someone's trying to steal the coins inside.
Science fiction? You'll find them on the streets of Burlingame, California today.
The Next Steps Are Logical Ones
It doesn't take a crystal ball to see how this will develop over time. Consider the struggle you have today to order office supplies over the web (oh yes, I know that Office Max and Office Depot win awards for their "easy" sites --but in this case easy is a very relative term).
In just a couple of years, the pain will be gone. Chips embedded in selected shelf areas of the TCP/IP-enabled supply cabinet (configured by you) will track the weight of the contents of each area. When, for instance, your paper clip shelf records that the weight has gone below a lowest threshold (meaning you're running low on clips), the supply cabinet will alert you that it's time to re-order, as well as provide statistics tracking the efficiency of your purchasing model. Pull out the old pointing device, and you're done.
Restaurant hunting? Put down the phone, log off and head over to your in-home entertainment kiosk (you know, the thing they used to call a television set).
Get your input device (in my Future-Ama you'll still be using a keyboard), enter a menu (e.g., French or Fresh Game), a distance you want to travel and a price range, and off goes your restaurant agent. Later it returns in a few seconds with a list of restaurants that match the requirements -- whether in town or in a place you've never been.
Make your selection and the reservation is made and confirmed. And the destination is sent via wireless to your car, where you'll be guided by the onboard GPS system. You're good to go, and not a browser in site.
On vacation? Need to get prints made from your digital camera? When you've loaded up your camera memory, you won't be writing to a floppy, putting it in your pocket until you get somewhere that can develop your pictures -- if the floppy doesn't get damaged during the trip.
Instead, you'll just press the "develop" button and the data will be transmitted to your developing house -- ready and waiting for you when you return home -- and paid for already through your account.
Now, of course, there will always be some use for the web and the browser as a basic means of gaining access to information and collaborating with others. In other words, fulfilling Tim Berners-Lee's vision of the web. But when it comes to procuring goods, managing and improving our daily lives and transacting business over the net, we'll be wondering in a very short time how we ever put up with URLs and GPFs and 404s and all of the other by-products of browser-based Net access.
So my advice to those companies who ask me to play futurist is this: Strategically, consider how you'll turn today's difficult Net access into tomorrow's integrated access -- how you'll turn the hand crank into the self-starter.
And my advice for those folks about browsers in general is even simpler: Use it for all it's worth: Just don't get too attached to it.
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Michael Fischler is founder and principal consultant of Markitek Consulting, which for nearly a decade has provided consulting services to companies around the world, from startups and small companies to giants like Kodak and Pirelli. Michael's approach to marketing revolves around the integration of the core marketing disciplines: strategic, tactical, operational, and technological. He is a 25-year veteran of marketing and a frequent speaker at business and marketing conferences worldwide.
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