Predictions for the Millennium

Way back in 1989 when I was doing my thesis research at the University of Maryland in what we then called “hypermedia,” I couldn’t get a lot of people interested in my work.

“Hyper-what?” they’d ask when I told them what I was up to, tilting their heads like befuddled hounds. “What the heck are you going to do with that? Nobody wants to read stuff on computers!” And when I tried to explain the Internet to them… well, let’s just say that they weren’t exactly intrigued.

Obviously, a lot’s changed since then. Especially this holiday season, when the Internet’s just about everywhere you look. While a few of us out there remember when Yahoo boasted an impressive list of a thousand or so web sites, to most folks the Net’s become a fact of life that seems to have always been with us.

If somebody had asked me in 1990 where the Internet and computer-based media were going to be in ten years, I probably would have predicted that they would serve as an important knowledge resource, offer businesses great promotional opportunities, and boast an impressive user base of several million at most. But if somebody had told me that by the end of the century web site advertising spending would top $1 billion and there would be several hundred million sites on the web with hundreds of millions of users worldwide, I think I would have told them to go sleep it off. And tech stocks… don’t get me started!

Obviously, very few – if any – of us foresaw how extensive an impact the Net would have on our lives. (Including me, since I’m not writing this to you aboard my 100-foot yacht paid for by the stock in Cisco, Amazon.com, Yahoo, and eBay I would have bought at IPO had I had a perfectly clear crystal ball.) If there’s one thing that’s become a fact of life in the Internet age, it’s that the rate of change and the rate of acceptance have been faster than anyone imagined they would be. Even the most pie-in-the-sky predictions of five years ago seem way under the mark.

So here we are at the end of the year and – provided that we’re not all hunting and trapping our own food and cooking it over Windows NT Administrator Certification manuals come January 2 – it’s time to prepare for the coming year. The craziness of 1999 lies behind us, and the opportunities of a new millennium open before us. What lies ahead?

A note of caution first: Predicting where the web’s going to go is a fool’s errand. If held to these predictions a year from now, I’d be likely to chalk them up to that one extra eggnog I downed before settling down to the keyboard. But as the Leading Edge Guy, I feel that it’s my responsibility to bite the bullet of prognostication. Duty calls! So in the interest of adding yet another prediction list to the gazillions that are out there, I present to you my list of web predictions for 2000:

  1. Web ad spending continues to grow, but fewer companies advertise. After the end of the Christmas season, a lot of investors are going to start to wonder where their money went. A lot of dot-coms blew their marketing budgets in an orgy of TV and radio spending during the holidays. But the question remains: Now what? I predict that the big brands will continue to get bigger while a lot of the smaller sites that bet the farm are going to look for other ways to promote themselves.

  2. Smaller, faster, cheaper. Moore’s law continues to hold for the time being, and as computer power goes up, prices will come down. Look for more Internet appliances showing up in those rooms of the house that never held a computer before – bedroom and kitchen email terminals, TV-based systems, and a computer in every kid’s room.
  3. Internet everywhere. Likewise, as wireless technologies come to the fore in 2000, we’ll see the web in our phones, our cars, and our PDAs. Getting lost will become a thing of the past (unless not consulting your Palm VII for directions becomes a manly thing to do). On the software front, there won’t be a major product released in the future that doesn’t integrate the web into its operations, offering instant fact-checking, constant updates, collaboration tools, and online knowledge-bases.
  4. Cyberspace and the analog world merge. As anyone who did their shopping in Cyberspace this Christmas knows, getting the stuff can be a problem and returning it an even bigger one. As the Toys-R-Us debacle showed, fulfillment is 9/10ths of the battle. Look for more synergies between the web and the physical world as bricks-and-mortar stores become fulfillment centers for web purchases. Who knows – “CyberDepot” consolidators who cut shipping costs by consolidating shipments for pickup at central locations may become a new player in the web world.
  5. Relationship webs emerge as an important force. Anyone online who isn’t on some friend’s email distribution list probably doesn’t have any friends. Communicating online through loosely organized alliances held together by email has become a fact of life. But the web will continue to be a driving force for keeping friends and family together as more and more people discover how easy it is to post baby pictures, family photos, and invitations. As more people come online, demand for applications that streamline personal relationships will grow.
  6. The global Internet takes off and shakes things up. So far, the U.S. has dominated the web. I predict that 2000 will bring explosive growth in overseas use of the web, as well as offshore systems designed to sell into the U.S. In addition, more and more U.S. companies will realize that their English-only sites are shutting out a big portion of their potential customers. Translation services, offshore hosting sites, and those who know how to deal with the challenges of international commerce will flourish.
  7. The public wakes up to privacy issues. The good news is that the public will finally get over their fear of using credit cards on the web. The bad news (from a marketer’s standpoint) is that people will really start to resent the fact that everything they do is being monitored, analyzed, and exploited to get them to buy more stuff. An uneasy truce will develop when advertisers learn to be more respectful of privacy and the public realizes that the stuff they get for free will only remain free at the cost of personal privacy.
  8. TV and the web merge, but not as we expected. Convergence is coming, but not in 2000. However, expect tighter integration between the web and TV in the way that “The Blair Witch Project” creators continued the story online. Some shows are doing this now, but look for the networks to wake up and realize the programming potential of the millions of eyeballs online that just can’t wait until next week to find out what’s happening. We may even see a major blurring of what makes up a “season” – just because a show’s run is over doesn’t mean it has to end on the web. More web programming means more ad dollars and lower costs – an equation even the most Luddite TV producers can grasp.
  9. “Me too” sites die in droves. Did you have a hard time telling one dot-com from another this year? I’d bet a lot of people did. Look for major consolidation as sites that offer little that is different from what their competitors offer sell out and merge with the leaders.
  10. The web gets taxed. It’s coming. As the political season heats up, look for more pressure from the states to tax e-commerce. How they’re going to do it is a different story, though – if I’m in my hotel room in New York buying a book from a site put up by a California-based company hosted in Virginia but shipping from Tennessee, whom do I pay the sales tax to? No one yet knows, but I’m sure that somebody’s going to figure it out soon.

Beyond next year, who knows? These days, any prediction made beyond three months has a tendency to look quaintly myopic in retrospect. But even so, we can be sure that broadband will change everything, though not next year.

We’ll continue to learn just how marketing on the Net is totally different from – yet strangely the same as – the tactics that have worked for the past hundred years. The Internet will continue to become more tightly integrated into our lives to the point that, several years from now, speaking of “Internet marketing” will seem silly – it’ll just be one more tool in the pile, just like telephone, direct mail, television, and radio.

And, as the world becomes more wired, instantaneous access to global information will continue to make national borders seem more and more anachronistic. Well, maybe. But if there’s one thing that’s a sure bet based on the past ten years, it’s going to be a wild ride.

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