By Nicholas G. Carr
It took a ton of work and it wasn't always pretty, but at last your Internet business is up and running. Your site's stable and secure; your pageviews are doubling every other month; you've nailed down e-commerce and advertising partnerships that are starting to pay off. Things are looking good.
Guess what? You're obsolete.
Up until now, the center of e-business has been the Web site. It's been assumed that the way to deliver content and commerce, as well as ads and links, is to arrange them in pages that can be read by users' browsers. Companies have dumped huge amounts of cash into fine-tuning site architecture and design to make their pages attractive and sticky.
But we're now at a moment of discontinuity in the Internet's history. New technologies are coming online that will destroy our Web-centric e-business ideas. As in the physical world, the virtual world will come to have many channels for distributing goods and transacting business. The Web will be just one channel, and it may not even be the most important one.
Exhibit One: Napster. In addition to clogging college networks and annoying the hell out of the recording industry, this little application provides a window to the future of the Net. It works like this: You download the Napster app onto your PC, and you tell it the name of an MP3 song you'd like to have. The app then searches the hard drives of every other Napster subscriber currently online. When it finds the tune, it copies it onto your drive.
Although it bypasses the Web entirely, Napster actually expands the Net's reach. Its success shows that single-purpose applications can be more attractive to users than the jack-of-all-trades browser. With Napster, you get exactly what you want without having to endure banner ads, marketing pitches or any other Web junk. There's no reason that the Napster model a virtual version of the Internet appliance can't be applied to the distribution of many types of information products.
Exhibit Two: Zaplets. Although everyone tends to use "Web" and "Internet" interchangeably, most people actually spend more of their time on the Internet using e-mail than browsing the Web. The Zaplet, a new product from the secretive startup FireDrop, transforms e-mail into a rich commerce platform. In essence, a Zaplet is an e-mail message with an application interface embedded in it.
Unlike an e-mail message, which never changes once it enters your inbox, a Zaplet message updates itself every time you open it. That makes it great for arranging meetings and doing communal chores. But Zaplets can also be programmed for commerce you can buy computers, trade stocks and bid in auctions without leaving e-mail or visiting a Web site.
Exhibit Three: OnePage. Due to launch any day now, OnePage is an application that lets you create a single, tailored Internet page that brings together pieces of information from many Web sites. In other words, it brings true cut-and-paste freedom to the Internet. You get what you need without having to slog from site to site. And, unlike a traditional portal, you decide what you want to see. You don't have to wade through preselected bits of content provided by a portal's partners.
Exhibit Four: Wireless. The next wave of e-business is "m-business," or mobile commerce. Using a broad array of wireless appliances, from Palm handhelds to cell phones to dashboard displays, people will take the Net with them, tapping in from time to time to gather information and transact business. Because wireless devices are by necessity small, the Web's pages, designed to display on big, high-resolution monitors, just won't work.
We'll go back to the future: Information will be delivered in small bits, using brief lines of text and diminutive icons and images. And because mobile users are almost always in a hurry, irrelevant content will need to be pared away. Site bloat, now the norm on the Web, won't be tolerated.
Napster, Zaplets, OnePage and wireless appliances have one thing in common. They all attempt to transform the Internet from, as OnePage CEO Will Chen puts it, "a clumsy and page-by-page experience" to a set of customized, specialized tools controlled by the individual. They are the vanguard of what promises to be an onslaught of innovative technologies that will change the way we access, navigate and use the Internet.
As control shifts from site operators to users, many e-business rules will be overturned. Take advertising, for instance. Most ad-based business models are founded on two assumptions: 1) users have to travel to sites to get the information they want; and 2) site operators can force-feed users ads and other sponsored content. Once users begin calling the shots, those models will fall apart. Given the option, who's going to choose to see ads?
Clicking from site to site may be a lot faster than driving from store to store, but it's still an inefficient and often haphazard way to get things done. Although Web browsing is a great way to exercise curiosity and accumulate knowledge, it's a pretty dumb way to do business.
In the months and years ahead, more Internet commerce is going to be conducted "offsite." If your e-business strategy concentrates on a single channel the Web you're going to be left behind.
Copyright 2000 by Nicholas G. Carr. All rights reserved. Originally published 4/10/00.
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