Marketing in the Brave New World of Distributed Computing

When scientists at the U.S. Department of Defense cooked up ARPANET way back in 1969 — in effect giving birth to the Internet — nobody had any idea what the future would do with the protocols and infrastructure being developed.

And when Tim Berners-Lee sat down and coded the first web browser as a way of sharing information with his colleagues at CERN and around the world, you can be sure there’s no way he had any idea of the industry that would spring from his efforts.

Regardless of the bumps in the road we’re hitting at the moment, there’s no question that the Internet and the web have changed the world. The technologies underlying the Internet have provided a standardized way of connecting widely disparate computers, technologies, and information. Today, everything from refrigerators to ovens to cars to phones to, yes, even computers can be connected using protocols and technologies developed by researchers who couldn’t have envisioned what they had wrought.

Many times, nobody has any idea what kinds of ideas and applications will come out of new technologies until they’re in place and in use. The baby steps taking place in the wireless industry today are probably far removed from what will be recognized by history as the killer apps of the time. And if you look back to what people thought would be the killer Net apps of yesterday (remember PointCast?) and the stunning surprises of today’s technology (look at how Napster took the world by storm), you can see how difficult it is to accurately foresee the future when it comes to technology.

Enter the World Wide Grid

But we can’t rest on our laurels. In order to begin developing the revolutions of tomorrow, it’s important to understand the bleeding edge of today. That’s why you need to know about the World Wide Grid.

The World Wide Grid? Yes, the grid. Begun as a research project headquartered in Switzerland at CERN, The DataGrid Project has been created to work on the next generation of the Internet, one where ultra-high-speed networks allow the sharing of terabytes of information across a worldwide grid of high-speed computers. This grid will be mainly scientific in nature, allowing shared supercomputer resources to be brought to bear on problems like weather prediction, molecular modeling, and nuclear physics.

Pretty esoteric stuff, right? Yeah, it is… but the European Union just pledged more than 9.8 billion euros for further development, boosting this little scientific experiment into the world spotlight and making it a lot more likely that technologies being developed here will affect all of us in the future.

Distributed Computing Over High-Speed Networks

Actually, the DataGrid project is just one of a number of cutting-edge grid-computing projects to get off the ground in the last year. Sort of like Napster on nuclear-powered steroids, projects such as Globus and strongly backed commercial ventures such as Mithral Communications & Design, Parabon Computation, and InfraSearch (currently hiding at all seek to harness the distributed power of computers across the Internet by allowing seamless sharing of assets and computational resources.

In reality, comparing these to Napster is a bit misleading; most of these systems more closely resemble the highly successful SETI@home project, an ongoing experiment that has had millions of people all over the world contributing to the search for alien life using a downloaded screensaver to analyze signals. (I told you this was cutting-edge stuff!)

No aliens have been found yet, but the system demonstrated how otherwise unused computing power across the Internet can be used for practical purposes.

While these kinds of applications may seem way out, distributed computing over future high-speed networks will have the power to radically change the way we think of the Internet. Today, the Net (and the web) basically consist of high-powered servers doling out information to millions of client computers, each running its own software.

In the grid future, the Net will still serve as a conduit for information, but it’ll also serve as an infrastructure for distributed computing where many parts of the software we use may not even reside on our desktop machines. In addition, creating the protocols to allow computers to share information and resources across the network will also hasten the future of pervasive or ubiquitous computing (see Kevin Kelly’s excellent “New Rules for the New Economy“), where the Internet will truly be everywhere. In the home, everything from your desktop PC to your digital TV and video recorder to your rack-mounted MP3 player to your kitchen email appliance to your cell phone will all have the ability to share in this seamless network.

Marketing to Customers in a Distributed Environment

For us marketers, this change will represent a radical shift in how we think of the Internet, giving us multiple channels through which to reach our target audiences and the ability to touch them every place where they touch our products and services.

In the future, communicating with customers in this distributed environment will mean the application of techniques much more subtle than those we use today. Tomorrow’s advertising models will probably be more tightly integrated into the mode and the communications media we use. Just as today we laugh at those “hold up the box and smile” commercials from the ’50s, tomorrow we’ll look back and chuckle at our naiveti in our use of poorly targeted broadcast models and ham-handed banner advertising.

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