New Digital Dawning

The Third Wave

The web isn't much use without equipment to access it. Chances are you're sitting near a PC. You have Internet Explorer or FireFox open. You have dozens of bookmarks, loads of plug-ins and a dependent relationship with your preferred search engine. David Rose, founder and chief creative officer of Cambridge, Massachusetts-based Ambient Devices, thinks all that can be overkill. He would just as soon glance over at a colorful glowing ball and tell you the weather report or if the stock market will tank. Welcome to the Third Wave.

The first wave was your standard HTML browser. The second wave was mobile devices like phones and PDAs that can access online content. "The Third Wave will be literally thousands of different devices and designs that show information people care about in forms that are embedded in things like watches or umbrella handles, increasing the utility of everyday objects," says Rose, 38.

Ambient's flagship product, the Ambient Orb, is a frosted glass ball that changes color to indicate changes in the stock market. It can also be set to meter customized information. It connects to the internet through a nationwide wireless network but doesn't require users to have a computer or their own internet connection. Rose hopes that the simplified delivery will appeal to those who feel overwhelmed by data. If Ambient Devices is any indication, the web could very well be coming to an umbrella handle near you soon.

What's in It for You?
That's a whole lot of innovation to try to keep up with. Right now, most entrepreneurs are spending their energy on keeping their websites updated, improving search engine rankings and investigating online marketing opportunities. Richard Riley, vice president and general manager of Yahoo! Small Business, is keeping an eye on the future of growing businesses and the web. "We'll rapidly go from a world where less than 50 percent of small businesses have a website to it being absolutely business-critical. Their online presence will become increasingly sophisticated [and] personalized to their customers," says Riley. He also sees more businesses adopting blogs as a way to communicate frequently with customers.

It's early days yet, but entrepreneurs are discovering online marketing as an affordable and effective way to reach customers. "You'll see a real explosion in the number of small businesses advertising online," says Riley.

More websites, blogging and online marketing may not be the most glamorous technological advances, but they are the ones that will impact your business directly over the next few years. No one can be sure exactly what the web will look like in five or 10 years, but we have some good guesses. The trends of today will lay the path for the web of tomorrow, and growing businesses will be in the thick of it all, blazing trails and taking new technologies to the limit.

Gaze Into Microsoft's Crystal Ball...
Over at Microsoft, the company has taken its small-business customer service quest to the web with the Small Business Center. It's part of the larger trend of moving business functions of all kinds to the web. We asked Doug Leland, general manager of small business for Microsoft's Worldwide Small and Midmarket Solutions & Partner Group, and Frederic DeWulf, Microsoft's U.S. small business web director, to reflect on the future of the web.

Mobile web technology, like online access through smartphones or PDAs, is an intriguing concept for growing businesses. "We're still in the earlier adopter phase. [Users] are starting to realize the productivity benefits," says DeWulf. "It's growing pretty rapidly in certain industries that have a higher share of mobile workers." Not all entrepreneurs will be rushing out to buy Treos for their employees, but as speeds increase and the technology matures, it will give a leg up to businesses that crave mobile access.

"Small businesses will leverage the web to move more and more of their business functionality to the web. It's started where we are today with e-mail, web hosting and having an internet site. Communications and marketing leverage of the web is going to grow," says Leland. He also sees more commerce-oriented online businesses emerging over the next several years. Along with that comes a phenomenon he calls "global competition for local customers." That means the web will become increasingly important for growing businesses, no matter their industry or brick-and-mortar presence. It's a wide web world out there, and it's only going to get bigger.

Taking Stock With Flock
Who better to offer their views on the future of the web than a couple of cutting-edge web entrepreneurs? Bart Decrem and Geoffrey Arone, both in their thirties, are the co-founders of Flock, a new browser built on open-source principles that has social networking and the Web 2.0 at heart. "Flock is a social browser. The goal is to take the web browser and evolve it the same way the web has evolved, to something a lot more interactive," says Arone. Flock's location in a Palo Alto, California, garage along with the company's all-night programming sessions and boundless enthusiasm are reminiscent of the web boom's early days.

The success of Mozilla's FireFox has helped loosen Internet Explorer's grip on the browser market and left the landscape open to innovators. Decrem has some thoughts to share with the new crop of technology entrepreneurs: "The big thing that's going on is that control is shifting from the creators of content and the publishers of content to the consumers," he says. "The winning startups have embraced [this shift instead of] fighting and trying to control it."

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This article was originally published in the January 2006 print edition of Entrepreneur with the headline: New Digital Dawning.

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