Hope was not really lost, for a sea change was beginning that would alter the face of the Internet forever. One marketing guru told the IBM/MCI joint venture that the way to fill their T-3 pipes was with commercial traffic siphoned off from the Fortune 500's private networks (his idea was rejected because "the Internet isn't for business"). At the same time, a young man in Switzerland was creating a new Internet Protocol call the Hypertext Transfer Protocol by adapting a text-based programming language used in the printing industry to bring automatic linking of network sites, graphics, and a "point-and-click" capability to the command structure used to navigate the UNIX-driven Internet. And while the "true" users of the Internet disavowed business and commerce, the Internet Society had reluctantly approved the ".com" domain for commercial use, thinking it would be used mostly for electronic mail and interconnecting the "big three" (AT&T Mail, MCI Mail, and Sprint's Telenet-based Sprint Mail) which existed as separate proprietary services.
Fast forward a year to a group of students who decided to write a program that would use the new Hypertext Transfer Protocol to create a new kind of application called a "browser." This browser would allow sites on the Internet to be viewed through a "GUI" (graphical user interface), which existed for Macintosh, the PC (Microsoft Windows), and UNIX (X.11). They hurriedly hacked out 9,000 lines of code, tested it to make sure it didn't crash, and then posted it on the Internet for others to download and try for free--long a favorite Internet pastime.
The ".com" domain took hold as businesses began to take advantage of the resources available on the Internet--and, oh yes, they did start using e-mail. The young man in Switzerland succeeded in creating a new protocol (http://) and what is now known as the World Wide Web. The browser became known as Mosaic. The college kids went on to create Mozilla, the Mosaic killer. The rest, as they say, is history.
You may have heard this story before, but it's worth telling again because it illustrates how serendipity often results in a major convergence. The sea change mentioned earlier? Well, today, three years later, more than 300,000 World Wide Web sites exist, and the generate 70% of the traffic on the Internet (which has expanded tenfold, and more than filled up those T-3 pipes and the many more since added). Those college kids are now Netscape millionaires, and the Internet is driven by business, creating a whole new category of commerce.
Each of these represents a major area, so we'll take an overview approach, while providing some pointers for further discussion. More important, the power of each of these will be expanded exponentially by the next wave of telecomputing devices quickly becoming known as "Internet Appliances" or the "$500 PC." This new category of computing equipment will likely be the turbocharger, and the reach of the Internet will dovetail into every segment of life.
The power of the Internet, as it has evolved up to this point, is to transparently connect any computer with any other computer. The browser has emerged as the "killer" application by making the Internet useful beyond the computer community. Putting a graphical face on the Internet's ability to carry digital information has transformed the medium entirely. It is now changing the role of computers from "client/server" to information "manager/user." And the content showing up on the World Wide Web is so compelling that the Internet has become both a business power tool and a source of entertainment that threatens every other medium for consumer loyalty.
The result: Everyone is searching for a way to cash in on the bonanza, with new business models appearing faster than they can be analyzed. The pace has accelerated to the point where every month on the Internet is like a year in real life. Cutting-edge technologies are grasped immediately in an effort to gain even the smallest advantage, in direct contrast to the conservative "test, wait, and see" approach that has driven business activities in the past. Under the new dynamics, to "try" is unacceptable. In the words of the Jedi master Yoda, "Try? There is no try. Do, or do not!" As evidenced in a recent Doonesbury sequence, going to lunch can cause the competition to eat your lunch because entire industries can change radically while you're looking the other way.
In the software industry, it has changed the business model completely. Under the Internet model, software is made available free to potential users to try out and evaluate. Download distribution and electronic access to both the developer and the user community has shortened product cycles to the point that the official release of the product is often coincident with the availability of the beta of the next-generation product (another Netscape innovation).
The flood of feedback from users is resulting in a new generation of truly "market driven" product development. The business model defined over a decade ago in Future Perfect, where the product is defined by the consumer at the time of purchase and the point of sale becomes the point of manufacture (eliminating the distribution channel altogether), has all but become reality. "Give the customer what they want" has been taken to the extreme.
On the Internet, ask the customer what they want and then stand back because they are definitely going to tell you. In the process, a new cost model has evolved. Traditional expenses such as manufacturing, packaging, distribution, warehousing, returns, and support infrastructures have all but disappeared. Under the new model, those costs have been dis-placed by servers, on-line storage, high-speed digital access lines, and technical support on-line versus telephone. Distribution, product return, and shrinkage are nil, since the product is downloaded at the customer's convenience and thrown away if unsatisfactory. The customer is empowered, and the competition may be one release away from stripping the market leaders' share. Scary stuff for traditional marketers.
A major difference is that the Internet levels the playing field. The massive resources required to create an Enterprise Network environment are affordable to all via the Internet. While large businesses look to the Internet as a means of cutting costs and increasing productivity, small businesses are leveraging the same environment to compete aggressively. This is changing the model as radically as the Internet itself, since small entrepreneurial companies can act more quickly than large ones while carving out profitable niches.
Creating an Intranet and implementing a gateway to the world at large through the Internet is defeating the traditional wisdom. The philosophy of "think globally, act locally" becomes "think locally, act globally" and is facilitated by the Internet. The implementation of this is evidenced by the migration of Lotus Notes, a "groupware" package designed to make complex work processes more achievable across Enterprise Networks. Notes is now Internet "enabled," allowing the internal processes to be made available to the world at large, across both the Enterprise and the Internet. Not to be outdone, Microsoft has delivered its most powerful database engine yet in SQL Server 6.5, which includes the ability to interface with both internal and external users via Internet Protocols and to deliver data to the user in Hypertext Markup Language (HTML), making it immediately available to anyone with a browser.
Security processes embedded in both products and bolstered by Internet "firewall" technology allow business managers to control access to the information. Automatic routing via Internet Protocols moves the information along the workflow process until work is completed and the final output is published as the last stop along the route. Timers and triggers alert managers that the workflow process has slowed or stopped, allowing the logjam to be broken and the process expedited once again. Nothing is allowed to impede the workflow process other than death, hardware failure, or the network crashing. Good management mitigates the first, while careful planning and implementation of the Intranet/Internet eliminates the latter. No more excuses for not getting the job done. The ultimate power tool has been unleashed and made available to David and Goliath simultaneously. Nervous yet? If any of this is news, you ought to be.
If your bank doesn't provide electronic banking--change banks! The only thing standing in the way of digital commerce is the banking establishment seeking to maintain their control over your money. This is not something you would normally tolerate in a supplier/customer relationship, so why tolerate it with a bank? It's your money. The banks will give you reasons why they can't provide this service to you because of "regulations" and "security." Bull! With all due respect to the banking community, they do business this way already. Do you direct deposit your paycheck? Your bank didn't refuse to let you put the money in electronically. They already have the infrastructure in place to allow you to conduct your business and personal transactions electronically. The government requires them to do so. The truth is they haven't figured out how to charge you for electronic transactions yet, but once they do they will be glad to let you do your banking this way because it also saves them money (that's their benefit from the workflow process).
In fact, MasterCard and VISA (who never agree on anything) have agreed on the Secure Electronic Transaction protocol to facilitate electronic commerce. This, by the way, is to assuage your personal fears about the hackers hanging out on the Internet trying to steal your credit card number. The reality is that sending your credit card information across the Internet is significantly safer than handing your card to the person serving you in a restaurant or store. Why? No "paper trail" of receipts and carbons left behind. Once the transaction information (what you bought and how much it cost) becomes electronic data (swipe the card through the POS terminal, punch the number into the cash register), it's as secure as technology can make it. The problems arise when you get careless (ever lose your credit card?), or the merchant fails to be vigilant.
Transactions processed over the Internet can actually be more secure than those done via automatic teller or point of sale:
For those who prefer to pay cash, several forms of digital cash exist as debit mechanisms. Buy those digital dollars, put them in your digital wallet, and spend them where you like. Several versions exist today, and a standard will be forthcoming once the dollar volume reaches a threshold that can no longer be ignored. As usual, caveat emptor.
What seems to be missing is the "warm and fuzzy" most of us require. That's why most transactions over the Internet can be conducted via human intervention by making an 800 call or fax transmission. People are comfortable with fax, but check to find out if the fax electronically transfers the transaction data into the system before you send your digital dollars. You wouldn't want a piece of paper from a fax machine lying around with your information on it any more than you would leave your receipts behind in a restaurant. Let the buyer continue to beware.
Not to be outdone, Macromedia (the dominant maker of multimedia creation tools) has delivered Afterburner and Shockwave to compress their multimedia formats for delivery over the Internet and allow you to play it back in your browser. These and more can create and deliver multimedia content to you at home or work. The key is integration into the browser (Netscape and Java, Microsoft Internet Explorer and Visual Basic) or "plug-ins," small programs that the browser uses to decode specific formats for playback. Shockwave is available for most browsers, as are plug-ins for the various audio and video formats.
Multimedia islands abound on the Internet. Download the plug-ins for free and go check them out. Stop at any magazine stand and pick up an issue that tells you how to plug-in and where to look for interesting and entertaining things to do. Look for business and fun. But note the time you start surfing the 'Net, because when you stop you may be surprised at how long you were at it. Time flies when you're having fun, and nowhere does time fly faster than on the Internet. As a result, entire new segments are evolving for business and entertainment content. If you can't find your favorite TV show or movie on the Internet, check your local listings because it may not be on anymore. Need news, business information, or a special utility to perform a business task? It's probably out there, you just need to know how to find it.
The impact of multimedia is so strong that it once again changes the traditional way of doing business. The cost of developing multimedia content for the Internet is such a small increment of the total cost of developing and delivering the final product that it no longer makes good business sense not to. In the content game, distribution is as important as execution of the concept. Multimedia tools now accept almost all formats as input and deliver digital data as output. Place the data on-line, promote it, and watch what happens. In the case of movies, previews, characters, the story line, and any other aspect (toys, etc.) are made available in tantalizing ways to build demand and hype the box office. Television shows are on the Internet to provide a contact point for fans and incorporate everything from bulletin boards to chat rooms to previews. One new show, Nash Bridges, starring Don Johnson, has a separate story line on the 'Net that ends in a cliffhanger to be resolved on the next broadcast episode.
The transition will probably take five years or longer, but improvements in software and hardware will make this a ubiquitous service while easing the main area of discontent--slow download of information. Compression technologies, coupled with "streaming" download techniques that allow the multimedia software to begin playback while the rest of the program is delivered, will keep start times in the sub-10 second range required to keep the user interested and involved.
The flood of content will continue with increasing volume and quality. The Internet will continue to compete as both a business environment and power tool, rapidly evolving into a core resource for business of all types. The educational and entertainment value of the Internet will likewise explode, making it the single largest source of information of all types. The dominant players in today's market will have to evolve and expand their products and services at an ever-quickening pace in order to maintain position and market share, while new companies will spring up nurtured by the Internet itself and the low barrier to entry into this expanding marketplace. In the process, the Internet will remake itself, taking us along for the ride.