The Times They Are A-Changin'

It may have something to do with the fact that I spent last weekend hanging Christmas decorations next to still-blooming geraniums. Or it may be because this weekend I headed over to the mall for my first blast of the holiday spending orgy in shorts and a T-shirt. But I can’t help but feel that something odd is stirring.

To those of you in parts of the Southwest or Florida, scantily-clad Christmas shopping may seem the norm. But to those of us who dwell here in the Northeast, 78 degree days in December seem like a harbinger of the end of the world, or at least a sign that some odd stars are aligning. And it may not be such an odd feeling for all of us to have. Something’s stirring and I’m just beginning to get a grip on it.

Last week, the first AutoPC went on sale in Seattle, San Diego, and San Francisco. Featuring voice-activated email, weather, directions, and traffic updates, this spiffy new gadget from Clarion slips right into the spot where your car radio used to be, jacking you into the ‘net and even allowing you to play CDs when you’re done surfing the Infobahn. It’s powered by WindowsCE and even features flash-card memory, so you can swap data between your car and your immovable PC.

Another recent development is 3Com’s Palm VII, a recently-announced version of the ubiquitous Palm organizer that comes equipped out of the box for wireless internet access. Weighing in at under $800 bucks (with $10 per month internet access), this new PDA will be available later in 1999 and will allow mobile users to access info and services from partners such as E*TRADE, ABCNews.Com, ESPN.com, Wall Street Journal Interactive, and Yahoo.

Palm VII-enabled sites will utilize “web clipping” which will strip “extraneous” (you can be sure that “extraneous” won’t include advertising) information from sites, allowing for quicker delivery over the airwaves.

Finally, at the Western Cable Show in Los Angeles, set-top box big-wigs Scientific Atlanta announced the deployment of their new Explorer 2000 digital set-top box, which allows users access to a whole plethora of Interactive TV options such as digital picture and sound, video-on-demand, internet access, email, and other whiz-bang functions.

Microsoft followed suit by announcing that its WebTV product will move away from its proprietary platform and will move to the OpenCable standard, allowing it to run on the next generation of digital cable devices. Intel jumped on the bandwagon, too, announcing that its Intel Video Phone software will now work with cable modems and will soon be compatible with digital set-top boxes.

It may be that the heat has started to cook my brain. But I can’t help thinking that the stars are aligning in a new way that may change the way we all use the internet. And it may even change the very nature of our business.

Though it’s been languishing in the realm of science fiction and futurist prognosticating for a while now, it looks as if ubiquitous connectivity is going to be upon us soon. Rather than sitting down to access the ‘net from the safety of our desktop PCs, the time is rapidly approaching where the ‘net is going to be everywhere — in our pockets, in our cars, in our TVs, and — with rapidly-developing software such as Sun’s Jini — even in our toasters, refrigerators, coffee pots, and home security systems.

What does this mean for those of us in the internet biz? It means that people won’t just be surfing to pull information down from sites anymore. It means that instead of firing up the computer to go to a place where we can check stocks, perform transactions, and buy stuff, we’ll be immersed in a world where everyone’s connected to everyone else. In effect, the ‘net will serve as a universal distribution medium not only for goods (in the form of information), but services as well. And that’s the key.

Previously, the line between the web (as an information medium) and our computers (as a place where we got work done) has been pretty clear, the availability of the ‘net as a medium where software and information can be delivered anywhere, at any time, blurs those lines. Now, we use a calendar on our desktop and perhaps “synchronize” that info with our palmtop to carry it with us.

Tomorrow, when our desktops are connected with our palmtops, televisions, and even cars, we’ll be able to share our schedules in real time with our spouses as they drive in the car, with our kids when they turn on the TV, and even with our coffee pots when we put in a reminder to start brewing an hour earlier for that breakfast meeting.

Many of us now are in the business of persuading people to buy our (or our clients’) products by tossing ads at them and building brand through exposure. In the connected future, the best branding might not be catchy messages, but rather useful services that help people negotiate the connected infospace.

Why not a Coca-Cola branded shopping reminder service that beeps us in the car to stop at the store on the way home, or even flashes a reminder on our ‘net-connected fridge? Why not a HomeTeamSports-branded local scoreboard that allows us to see the results of our kids’ games while we’re away on our palmtops, or lets Grandma pull up the scores on her set-top box?

Heck, instead of offering yet another “portal” site, some potential Bill Gates out there might just hit the big time by offering a “HomeSuite” of online tools. “HomeSuite” could help organize family activities, notify connected family members of chores, and even share schedules, pictures, and messages while simultaneously conferencing with far-flung family members as they drive in their cars, jack-in from the train, or sit in front of the TV.

I don’t think that all this is so “as-seen-on” The Jetsons as it may seem at first glance. How many of us even imagined we’d be buying most of our Christmas presents online just five years ago?

Things are moving fast. It’s time to get ready to shift paradigms again.

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