Partly Cloudy: The Web’s Future Is in the Air

This February, we went out to watch the Amgen Tour of California, a pro bike race that’s held here in my wonderful state. When it came through northern California, we went out and watched live. Watching bike races is an odd pastime. You wait, then a group of riders fly by in a flash. You can’t really tell what’s happening. All you see is an instant.

Well, not me. This year, I was camped out with my smartphone, logged onto a site offering text updates and minute-by-minute race coverage. I knew just when the riders were getting close, what was going on in the race, and what happened after they passed. I was a crowd favorite, shouting details as they became available.

I’m not alone in doing what’s beginning to be thought of as the “cloud computing” (define).

Touching the Cloud

The (fantastic) Pew Internet & American Life Project has posted a new research report, “Mobile Access to Data and Information.” The report notes that a remarkable 62 percent of U.S. adults have either accessed the Web wirelessly or used a data feature on their cell phone. Every day, 42 percent of people with cell phones or mobile devices use them for something other than making a phone call.

The Pew research team views this as an important shift in the Internet’s nature, and I agree. We’re clearly at the dawn of the third great shift in Web use. The first was the transition from UNIX-style text-only access to graphic interfaces. The next big shift was from slow dial-up accounts to affordable, always-on broadband. The current shift is from in situ Internet access to roaming, free-flowing constant connectivity.

This last one is a big one. According to Pew, the change is more than just a souped up connection that allows you to consume richer media. In fact, the exact opposite is the case; most of the media we’ll consume on mobile devices will be lower resolution and be delivered at slower speeds than we’re used to.

But richness of experience isn’t what this shift is about. It’s about a level of convenience for an increasingly nomadic, eclectic workforce. Leaps in technology (e.g., the new iPhone API (define), Adobe’s AIR, and Mozilla’s Prism) and in policy (e.g., the auctioning off of big chunks of the wireless spectrum), will only add more money, resources, and interest to this next wave: cloud computing.

The notion of the cloud is a fairly simple one. Instead of your data being tied to your own hard drive or to a particular server on a particular network, your data are just…out there. Your data — vacation photos, spreadsheets, games (saved at your levels) — are available to you seamlessly anytime and through just about any device.

Which is what makes this shift so important for marketers. If you use the cloud to compute, suddenly everything you do is a media event. And by “media event,” I don’t mean something that will be written about in “People” magazine. Rather, the person doing the computing is online and engaging with a public site as opposed to launching a private application. That represents an opportunity.

The Future Will Not Be Appvertised

Certainly, many will look at this opportunity as a chance to load up every application with a bunch of banners. If someone’s using an online spreadsheet, placing an ad next to the worksheet may represent an impression. But have you ever worked on a spreadsheet? I know when I open up Excel, I like to go into another room and put on headphones. The fewer distractions, the better.

That’s not to say there can’t be brands present in the interaction. Google recently added some pretty nifty functionality to its Web-based spreadsheet application. You can write a pretty simple calculation to bring in data from a Google search. Want to convert quarts to liters in your spreadsheet? You can pull up the formula (about 1.1 liters in a quart) from Google and have it dropped right in.

This seems a perfect opportunity for a brand to apply some value and make an impression. Maybe American Express should provide currency conversions for expense reports. EBay could provide the average price of an item for competitive reviews. And Betty Crocker could provide those quarts-to-liters conversions.

As the technology and trends change, so will computer uses. We currently consider being online primarily as consuming information. In the very near future, we’ll see a true break in that model. People online will be getting things done as much as they’re getting content. This means marketers can be that much more integrated with consumers’ lives.

The challenge, of course, is imagination. We’re at the nascent stages of this shift. Now’s the time to dream.

Related reading

Overhead view of a row of four business people interviewing a young male applicant.