Even as entrepreneurs wrestle with Web 2.0, it’s time to look ahead at the next generation of online tools and techniques. In this three-part series, bMighty takes a look at where we’ve come from and where we’re headed.
For well over a decade now, the Web, the Internet on which it rides and the various software devices and programs that make it work have been evolving so rapidly–creating so many business opportunities and challenges–that many small and mid-sized businesses have been busy just hanging on.
The good news: Things aren’t going to slow down. The challenging news: Things really aren’t going to slow down. And while envisaging all the incarnations of these technologies is all but impossible, entrepreneurs would be wise to try to anticipate the changes that could truly boost (or upend) their businesses.
Part 1: Where We’ve Been And Where We Are
It’s a mistake to try to label the Web with iterations: Web 1.0, Web 1.4, Web 2.0 and so forth. The Web is too ubiquitous, too constantly in flux, too flexible, too all-things-for-all-people-and-businesses to be comfortably categorized.
Part 2: The Next Web
The essence of the Web for business is the same as the essence of every business undertaking: communication, content, transaction, resolution, and mutual benefit.
For some time now, and from now on, content will be the most essential element. Whether it’s a product description or catalog entry, a price and specifications negotiation, an e-mail dialogue, a Web-based consultancy or Web-marketed hard goods, the ability of your business to deliver the appropriate content to the appropriate recipients is now the name of the business game.
It’s the same as it’s always been — only, as the Web evolves, it’s becoming different.
Maybe very different.
Among the biggest Web 3.0 (and beyond) buzzes right now is the pursuit of the semantic Web.
What the semantic Web’s enthusiasts promise is the transformation of everything on the Web — documents, videos, e-mails, music, images, everything — into elements of a database.
This one database will stretch across, and through, the Web, and will be increasingly searchable in natural language – the language you, and more important, your customers, use.
The goal? Far more effective searches from far more natural queries, generating far more specific and appropriate results from within Web pages, documents, videos, exclusive of the applications in which they were created or housed, rather than the morass of Web sites and pages that searches return now.
Think of it as mashups on steroids. The difference is that the machines — your tools, programs, and software agents — do the mashing for you and your customers.
For this approach to Web 3.0 to work — at least work in the way the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) envisions it — will require the development of “common formats for integration and combination of data drawn from diverse sources” – a true iteration or transformation of the way the Web works.
In short, it will be a Web of data designed — or redesigned — for interpretation by the machines we use to store and access the data. And as the next section shows, that has big implications for the way we’ll do business.
Take a look at what Informationweek had to say about the Semantic Web’s business potential back in 2002 … two years before the term Web 2.0 was coined.
Here’s what Web visionary (and the coiner, in 2001, of “Semantic Web”) Tim Berners-Lee told BusinessWeek
And since the semantic Web crosses media types, watch a video of Berners-Lee talking semantic Web at MIT.
Have Your Machine Sell To My Machine
Assuming the Semantic Web (or something like it and its potential capabilities) takes shape — no less risky than any assumption, as plenty of Semantic Web skeptics point out — the underlying common formats will speak more clearly than ever to the machines and applications accessing them.
Couple that with continued advances in both hardware (processing power, storage capacity, high-speed connectivity) and software (near-intelligent agents that “understand” what you do, what your customers want, and what your employees need, and how to bring the various parties together with the right content) and you have not only a transformed Web but a transformation in the way we do business, and other pursuits, across the Web.
Add in the spread of Web-based software as a service (SaaS) and the ongoing dispersal of cloud computing and you start to get a sense of where all of this might be headed and what it could mean for business.
On the mundane side of things, some of what we’ll get are outgrowths of tools we already use, regular reorders, just-in-time supply chain monitoring, etc. Automatic re-ordering of office supplies, for instance, and regularly scheduled maintenance and updates/upgrades — any transaction that’s repetitive, standardized, or commonplace is a prime candidate for being turned over to an automatic agent which will in turn communicate and transact with other auto-agents.
(Sound familiar? Take a look at Alvin Toffler’s The Third Wave — written before the Reagan revolution, much less the Web revolution. It still reads well and is far less quaint than one would imagine.)
Marketing, Selling and Complying on the Next Web
On the core-business side of things, it gets far more interesting. Let’s take a look at some of the possibilities and potentials.
You’ll have far more assurance that your Web-based marketing endeavors are reaching the precise prospects and customers you want them to reach, rather than today’s “craft your keywords and trust you’ll get proper placement” approach. As your customers’ and prospects’ Web tools — browsers, calendars, clipboards — grow more familiar with their owners’ preferences, histories, and needs, they’ll be far likelier to bring your products and services to their attention — flagged and pre-vetted — as opposed to your current dependence upon carefully crafted keywords vying to catch the attention of a search engine.
What goes for your customers will go for your sales force as well. Prospecting for customers will become a far more automated, and far more efficient process, again based on the various systems’ deeper relationships with what you sell and what specific customers — from individual consumers to enterprise purchasing agents — want.
Financial reports, taxes, and compliance regulations are all items ideally suited for content-smart applications and processes. We’re already starting to see some Semantic Web tools applied to compliance matters, and that’s likely to become far more common and also a major business category for both software developers and business service companies.
Imagine, for instance, your company employing software that not only tracks your sales, inventory, costs, etc., but also constantly coordinates and communicates with appropriate regulatory bodies, financial institutions, revenue-collection agencies, counselors to your business, and so on. You’d undoubtedly be no less annoyed by the regulations – but you’d be far less worried about violating them, too.
Part 3: Web 3.0–The Risks And Rewards
Between cybercriminals and consolidation, the next Web can get hazardous. In this third of a three-part series, a look at how to cope with the threats and enable your smaller business to survive and thrive in the world of Web 3.0
Tomorrow’s Threat Environment: More Threatening than Ever
Thanks to the constant coordination and communication that the next Web affords, you might be less worried about violating regulations — as long as your smartware maintains your content’s privacy. (See next section.)
Whatever form, shape, or nature Web 3.0 and subsequent evolutions assume, it’s more than a safe bet that the threat community will rise to the challenges.
Here’s just a (speculative) glimpse of what we might need to be afraid of:
But the cybercrime community isn’t the only threat the evolution of the Web faces.
Consolidation and Content: Big Media, Big Government, and Small and Midsize Businesses
Not for nothing is Microsoft working to wrap Yahoo into its fold, even as Google is working to wrap the whole world (or so it seems) into its, even as Amazon is starting to push a variety of online services into the cloud, and on and on – name a big-biz player in the Web space and you’ve named a company that’s trying to get a handle on the next Web and to guide, if not control, its direction.
The risk here – and it’s probably unavoidable, and may have been so for some time – is that as the big search engines become bigger and bigger, and the players become fewer and fewer, we could find ourselves in a content/search/results situation more sophisticated than today, but otherwise little different: Your Web 3.0 efforts may need to march to a Google/Microsoft/Name-Your-Player tune even as the Web offers the promise of more variety.
Or crawl to that tune. While net neutrality — all Internet traffic is treated the same; the Net is a public thoroughfare — has made Webs 1.0 and 2.0 possible, and will be essential for the content-rich, all-talking-all-videoing-all-everything Web of tomorrow, it’s by no means a sure thing.
In addition to the possible resurgence of Net traffic regs as a legislative issue on state and federal levels, there’s a big biz – the telcos in particular and, potentially, the search cos component — that gives pause, and maybe more than pause.
As far as the big search companies, keep an eye on their relationship to traditional telcos and providers. The more bandwidth they eye and buy, the likelier they are to try and slow things down for their competition.
And we’re already seeing some providers slow down users’ content-transfers, most notoriously Comcast’s peer-to-peer blocking controversy but also the access restrictions that satellite Internet providers routinely impose on their users. (Most of those users are, by the way, located in rural areas — much of which remains underserved by high-speed broadband and for which, thus, much of Web 3.0 and beyond may be unobtainable.)
But Let’s Look At The Bright Side
Early on, I promised you a kaleidoscope, and that’s what I’ve tried to provide – but looking at the Web and its possible future(s) even through a kaleidoscope can only give a hint of where we are, much less where we’re headed.
So let’s look, close-up, at some tools and initiatives that can help your business thrive on this Web, that Web, and whatever Webs come our way:
Think small: Those mobile devices – phones, BlackBerrys, etc. – mentioned in passing early in the piece are likely to be the devices for tomorrow’s Web. Take a hard look at your core marketing and communications materials and if they aren’t optimized for mobile delivery to mobile screens, start doing so now. Those gorgeous pages optimized for desktop flatscreens don’t play well in the palm of a customer’s hand.
Know your vendors – and know what they know (or don’t) about Web 3.0: Your Web and IT teams, or third-party Web service vendors, had better be on their game as tomorrow’s Web takes shape. Its arrival will be anything but a seamless transition à la a new operating system (and we all know how seamless those are.) Rather, the new Web will emerge piecemeal, with tools deployed, techniques tried, approaches embraced and abandoned. Better make sure your people are up to date with the future.
Be prepared to move beyond text – and pay for it: Like it or not, the next generation of the Web – and more specifically its users – may be far more video than text oriented. That means increased costs for you, but it could pay off in increased business.
Customize your content: The more carefully you’ve mounted your current Web content with an eye to individualizing to your own business as well as the business requirements of the various search engines, the better off you’ll be as new approaches to the Web emerge. Optimize your content for your business’s identity as well as for successful searches. Maybe it’s time for a new position in the hierarchy: Chief Content Officer, anyone?
That last point speaks clearly to what the next Web will be, whether the Semantic Web we looked at here, or a 3-D virtual video game-like Web that some foresee, or something as yet unforeseen — the point is going to be an increased transparency of relationship between content and communications and, as a result, increased transparency and ease and efficiency of communicating your content to your customers, partners, employees, and vendors.
And to the world, if you want, or only to the exact members of the world you want to reach.
Know your business — and make sure every member of your team knows it as well.
That’s what the next Web will be about, that sort of deep and thorough knowledge of yourself and your products and services, the ways in which your customers use them, your competitors’ positions, the trends and currents, opportunities and upheavals that you and your customers face, all open and readable by a variety of means, reachable via a variety of devices.
Be on your business game and be sure your IT and Web teams are on theirs, and you’ll be ready for whatever Web comes your way.
Still, it’s convenient to have road markers when you’re tying to map new territory, especially territory as broad as the Web. The following outline gives a sense of the areas of demarcation between different “versions” of the Web.
Web 1.0: Where We Were (1994 to 2004)
–HTML Web pages
–E-mail becomes ubiquitous as a business tool
–Dot-com boom (and bust)
Web 2.0: Where We Are (2004 to present)
–Fast connections enable more vibrant content
–Much of that content is user-generated
–Online sales become a measurable and increasingly important part of the economy
–Keywords enhance search engine position
–Social networking sites–MySpace, Facebook, YouTube, etc.–create online communities and vastly enhance online marketing (including viral marketing)
Web 3.0: Where We’re Headed (ca. 2008 onward)
Take a look at any of the elements listed above–bearing in mind that this list barely scratches the surface of the technologies and trends that comprise the Web–and think about how it affects both your business and the way you do business.
Some technologies–such as social networking and Wikis–may have been tangential to your business so far (and may remain so). But others–like e-mail, Instant Messaging, browser-based communication, search engines like Google (nasdaq: GOOG – news – people ) and Yahoo! (nasdaq: YHOO – news – people ) and online marketing–are by now so central to virtually every type of business that to think of doing business without them is, well, unthinkable.
Just as clearly, many of these technologies and trends have as yet to be fully integrated into business or fully exploited by it. That’s an ongoing process, evolving even as it progresses.
Standing on this admittedly uncertain terrain, the question is: Where do we go next–and what does that mean for your business? For some answers to those questions, read on.
By Keith Ferrell