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Think about this: Ten years ago, a group of technology experts sat down and envisioned the future of the internet. They imagined the ubiquity of e-mail, that the web would be home to a giant auction house, and that phones would be able to access tiny versions of the online world.
Actually, nobody ever predicted what the internet has become today. We were all too busy learning basic HTML tags and trying to remember how to check our e-mail. But that won't stop us from looking ahead now to the future of the web and what role entrepreneurs will have in it. An exciting world is developing, and growing businesses will be riding the waves as both users and innovators.
Who's in Charge?
Sometimes the best way to understand the big picture is to take a look at the smaller brush strokes that make it what it is. Here's a big trend: decentralization of control. It's a move toward web users having more power to control their own online experiences. Here are some of the brush strokes: wikis, blogs, podcasts, RSS and mash-ups. You've probably heard of most of those, and if you haven't, you'll probably hear of them soon.
Joe Kraus, co-founder with Graham Spencer of wiki startup JotSpot, has a strong sense of web history. He was one of the original founders of early search engine Excite and is an active angel investor involved with tech companies. His passion these days is wikis-collaborative websites that can be edited by multiple users. "Wikis felt like a useful tool [back in 1993], but for a limited crowd. They were trapped in the land of the nerd. [They're] more powerful because [they] tap everybody's knowledge instead of restricting it to a single individual," says Kraus, 34. Palo Alto, California-based JotSpot, jumping on the larger trend toward decentralized control, has set out to bring wikis into the mainstream.
That trend, in fact, has entrepreneurs blogging to their customers, sending out podcasts and gathering news through RSS feeds. These are all relatively new trends that will magnify as the web moves forward. Says Kraus, "I'm a huge believer that the most powerful revolutions in computing are do-it-yourself revolutions."
Web: The Next Generation
Trying to guess where Google is heading is like listening to the sounds of a circus setting up from outside the big-top tent: You know something exciting is going to happen; you just don't know what. Blogs are burning with speculation, many connecting the dots to the concept of the web as a computing platform. All that guesswork underlines another fundamental shift in the web: the move away from static web pages to a more interactive, real-time environment. It's the next generation. It's the Web 2.0. And it's already underway.
Steven Minton, 47, co-founder of web intelligence and search company Fetch Technologies in El Segundo, California, is an entrepreneur working in the thick of the Web 2.0 evolution. "The web is not made for computers; it's made for people," says Minton. "The vision of Fetch Technologies is [to make] the web a more productive place for computers to collect information." That's also a strong underpinning of the Semantic Web--an intriguing project from web creator Tim Berners-Lee that is aligned with many of the concepts of Web 2.0.
What this all means for entrepreneurs is that the way you use the web is shifting. Search engines will be one noticeable area of improvement. Minton looks ahead to what we can expect to see over the next five years: "[You'll] be able to do a better job of searching because you'll tell them the type of thing you're interested in. There will be more automated assistants to help you shop, travel and so forth, and more sophisticated decision-making aids."
Says Minton, "One of the most interesting things happening right now is that the leaders--Google, Yahoo! and a few others--are really breaking new ground in a hurry. It's one of those rare times in history where some of the biggest companies are making the biggest inroads."
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
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."