The Revolution Is Coming

If there’s one thing that the Internet’s done to business, it has been to lay bare just exactly what the public values from their products and services.

As the Net’s cut through the middlemen, disintermediated buying decisions, linked up buyers and sellers, and provided a direct channel from corporate to consumer, many businesses have had to discover that what they thought they were selling isn’t what consumers thought they were buying. And the impact’s been huge.

Take the Encyclopedia Britannica, for example. As recently as ten years ago, it was generally accepted that what they were selling was knowledge and insight, organized in a clear, concise manner. They were on top of the world with a sales force of over 2,000 people, worldwide acclaim, and over 200 years of brand equity.

Six years later, they laid off their sales force and nearly slipped into bankruptcy until they were purchased by a Luxembourg investment group with big plans to resurrect the sinking ship of knowledge.

What happened? How could a venerable company like Britannica go from riches to literally rags in such a short amount of time? The answer lies in the web and in understanding what Britannica was really selling.

Before Britannica went belly-up, a full set retailed for about $2,000. Two thousand dollars? Hmmm… What else sold for about $2000 around that time? That’s right: a computer!

In retrospect, it turned out that people weren’t buying Britannica solely for the information. In large part, they were buying it as a tangible sign of their love and parental devotion to their child’s education. As soon as the web made the information available at the push of a button, and computers allowed access to that information (as well as lots of other fun stuff), making a decision to buy either a computer or an encyclopedia became a no-brainer.

Currently, Britannica is clawing its way back with a new site containing all their content, as well as several nifty web-linking features. No longer will Britannica be a static icon of culture; it now exists as a living, breathing, growing… web site. The Net moves on.

So why am I, the Leading Edge guy, wasting my (and your) time dredging up such a non-leading edge topic? Because the Britannica story should serve as a cautionary tale about what happens when the pace of change overtakes us, flipping what we thought we knew upside down and changing all the rules. It happened (and is happening) on the web. And it’s about to happen again with the wireless Internet.

If your radar isn’t tuned to what’s happening with the wireless Internet yet, it’s time you started paying attention. You may not be noticing it now (except for the occasional “gee whiz” glimpse of a Palm VII or Net-enabled cellphone), but the wireless planets are aligning.

Industry heavies like USWeb/CKS have teamed up with 3Comm to start providing digital wireless content and services. Microsoft and Qualcomm have been in bed for a while now on wireless joint ventures.

Wireless access devices are being released in record numbers with ever-growing whizbang functionality. The PDQ Smartphone, the PalmVII, Mitsubishi smart phones, RIM Blackberry… the choices just keep growing.

How will this stuff impact our day-to-day lives and the way that we market to people? Perhaps more than anything else, the one thing that the wireless Internet does is allow web services and information to become tightly integrated into consumers’ lives.

Rather than making the web something that you go to via a deskbound PC, the web and the knowledge and services contained there are with the wireless user all the time. Suddenly information on nearly anything is a quick click away.

One place where wireless may have a huge impact is in traditional retailing. Today, if you want to go into a store with information you’ve gleaned from the web, you’ve got to do your “pre-shopping” at home, print out your info, and then take it into the store. You can’t look up prices as you shop, you can’t check out competitive products, and you can’t look up product data… unless you have wireless Internet access.

With wireless, you can comparison-shop, check prices, and use them immediately to your advantage. Breaking down that last barrier between analog space and cyberspace, wireless will allow the future shopper to hand the salesperson her Palm VII with a smile and simply say, “Beat that price.” Retailers will have to respond.

One of the biggest complaints that current cybershoppers have is that it’s just not possible to touch and feel products online before purchase. With the web in your pocket as you visit your local mall, that ceases to be a problem. Wanna buy a TV online because of the price, but you’re a little leery about buying it sight unseen? Pop over to the local Big Box retailer, check out prices and features, and place your order with the online retailer right while you’re in the store.

If this sounds like pie-in-the-sky fantasy, it’s not. Wireless e-biz consulting firm Wireless Intranet and Mobile Computing reports that their studies have already seen this occurring. E-tailers Amazon.com and Virgin.com have already reported sales from customers using their wireless devices to purchase goods… one person supposedly even purchased a big-screen TV from Amazon over their Palm VII.

Web start-up Shadowpack just launched the first personalized wireless device portal, scoring partnerships with Amazon, Travelocity, Trip.com, Citiquest.com, and TheStreet.com as initial content providers. As with your typical web portal, users of Shadowpack can customize news feeds, shopping, and financial information, but instead of customers having to go to their PCs, they can get the data right through their wireless devices… optimized for low-bandwidth delivery. Currently the service is free and works with any number of phones, PDAs, and pagers.

The point is that the revolution is coming and, to some extent, is already here. As the web and its services become integrated into our lives, many of the ways that we use the web are going to change. Being aware of that change and knowing that it’s already upon us can help keep many of us from becoming the next Britannica.

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