The Not-Too-Distant Future

First, I want to thank everyone who emailed me about last week’s column 10 Things I Hate About the Web Media. From the gobs of email I received, it seems like I must have touched a very raw nerve.

This week I want to turn my attention away from what irritates me (not an easy thing!) to talk about what I’m hopeful for. To do that, I’d like you to think about the telephone for a minute.

Yes, the telephone that old technology that’s been with us for a long time, so long that most of us probably don’t stop to think about it that much. It’s just there, and we use it when we need it, without any training, books, seminars, or gurus telling us what to do.

The phone’s just there, ringing when a call comes in and ready to go as soon as we pick up the handset. It may be a 900Mhz cordless fancy-schmancy model, but the basic features are all the same. We don’t make a big deal about it — it just is.

Now think about the computer for a minute. Most desktop machines are big, bulky boxes with a snake-pit of wires in the back, hooked up to various peripherals and filled with arcane traps for the unwary.

Billions of dollars each year are spent (and made) keeping it working, with uncounted books, seminars, training classes, and programs out there helping us use the dang thing. While most of us would laugh out loud if we received a flyer for a “telephone literacy course,” many of us think nothing about dropping big bucks for computer training for ourselves or our employees.

But things are changing. With the advent of set top boxes, WebTV, and various “Internet appliances,” the PC is in the throes of being transformed from a complicated monster that must be tamed to yet another box like the TV. We’re at the very early stages now (just ask any of the saints out there who do tech support). But there’s one inevitable trend just starting to appear — as bandwidth expands and connectivity increases, computers will disappear as complicated parts of our lives.

Now I’m not saying that this is going to happen over night — we’re still a long way from universal broadband connectivity — but it will happen. And when it does, the implications to our industry will be staggering.

It’s An Event

Right now, getting on and using the web from home is primarily an event for most users. You have to get up, go to the computer, turn it on, make the connection to the Internet, fire up the web browser, and type in the address of the site you want to view.

We speak about this process using very event-driven language: “visiting” sites, “downloading” information, “logging in” to do so, and “logging off” when you’re done. Web sites are places that you travel to and leave from, performing discrete tasks while you’re there and forgetting about them when you’re gone.

This event-driven process is a natural extension of the way that we have to use the web at home now. It’s a pain in the behind to use, and not something most people think of as a seamless part of their lives. In fact, for many tasks it’s easier to pick up the phone and make a phone call than it is to get online, find the site you’re searching for, and grab the info you need.

It’s A Fact Of Life

But think for a minute about how you use the web at work. If you’ve got a full-time Net connection on your LAN, you don’t think twice about clicking over to your web browser, snagging the info you need for your presentation, and then popping back over to your presentation program to plunk in the data. You might even use a system where you click on an email icon, fire off a message, and then enter in some data into a database to update everyone via your company’s intranet.

It’s no big deal. It’s how you do business. Using the computer at work is just a fact of life — it’s a vital resource you need to get the job done, not some special event you have to psych yourself up for.

Now what happens when you start to use your computer like this at home? When the day comes that your information appliance is always on, always available, and as easy to use as the television? All of a sudden, the web moves from being an event in your life to becoming an ongoing resource for living.

A Kinder, Gentler Place

What does it mean to become a resource? First, it means being always available. Secondly, it means that its easy to find and use. Finally, it means that it makes your life simpler and easier, not more complicated.

Unfortunately, I can think of few sites that actually accomplish this. In fact, I really can’t think of the last time I felt a site made my life easier. But that doesn’t mean that things have to be that way.

As the web moves from being an event to becoming a resource, our thinking about the web has to change. Sites need to become more like integrated applications than single information sources. And I don’t mean the current “stickiness” trend that has everyone queuing up to throw everything but the kitchen sink at you in hopes that you’ll stay around and look at lots of ads. No, what I mean is sites that actually make your life easier.

Imagine for a moment a site designed to help you manage your kids better. It would include a calendar that you could share with all your kids’ friends, teachers, coaches, and friends’ parents. Because it was an online application, all those people would have access to the same information, no matter where they were. The site might have a spot for teachers to post homework assignments and grades, a place for coaches to place practice and game schedules, and a place for friends to plan events together.

If you have young children in day care, it might also include a place where you could check on them at work via a live webcam. Since your kids have access to the web at school, you might be able to post reminders to them that they could pull up from their classroom or that show up as virtual sticky notes on the TV when they get home. You could limit access to a select group, which might even include grandparents who could view your child’s latest artistic creation scanned and uploaded to the site.

Home Management.com

But why stop there? Why not an entire home management system that helps you buy groceries, schedule doctors’ appointments, plan trips, make appointments for oil changes, and shut off your mail when you go on vacation? Heck, tie in this application with the vendors who supply these services, and watch the friction in the economy slide towards zero. In a networked world where everyone’s online, things like this not only become possible, they become inevitable.

The key here is integration and connectivity. Using what we’ve got to make lives easier, not more complicated. WebTV is already working towards this — you can now control home appliances and program your VCR from within the WebTV interface — but there are unlimited future opportunities.

Sure, it sounds a little far-fetched now, but who would have imagined five years ago that we’d be spending so much of our lives online now? The ones who did are the billionaires of the week. The ones who didn’t well, playing catch-up is tough. It’s time to start building tomorrow’s realities today.

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