Friday, October 01, 2004

Next big thing: The Web as your servant

What if the Web could anticipate your needs?

By Kevin Maney / USA TODAY / 10.1.2004


The Web is over. Now comes the next big thing, growing out of the primordial soup of wireless and wired networks, gadgets, software, satellites and social changes created over the past decade.


This coming wave doesn't even have a name yet. Some in tech call it the world network. A big part of the promise is that it will turn the Web around: Instead of having to find information or entertainment, it will find you ? and be exactly what you want or need at that moment. The network becomes a butler.


"This is the real Internet 2.0," says Halsey Minor, CEO of Grand Central Communications, a start-up helping catalyze the new era.


What will the world network do for people? One example, culled from interviews with executives and entrepreneurs across the tech industry, might be a service we'll call Travel Butler, or TB for short. It doesn't exist, but services like it are a gleam in the eye of companies ranging from Orbitz to AT&T.


Let's say it's 4 p.m. TB knows you have a flight scheduled for 6 p.m. because it regularly prowls the Web sites you use for travel and found you booked a ticket on Orbitz. TB can tell, perhaps by checking your online calendar, that you're at a meeting downtown.


The service cross-checks with a map service such as MapQuest to find the route you'd have to take to the airport. Once it knows that, TB goes out on the network to monitor traffic on your route ? and finds the streams of data on the Department of Transportation Web site, which monitors road cameras and sensors.


TB might see that accidents have backed up traffic for miles. It sends you a message, which finds you on your BlackBerry e-mail, saying that to make your flight, you'd have to leave now. TB also shows you an Orbitz listing of later flights.


You decide to go on a later flight, so you click on the one you want. TB rebooks you, sends an e-mail to your spouse and contacts the car service in your destination city to change the time to pick you up.


That's an experience that rises above a particular technology. "People really don't want to buy technology," says Lisa Hook, head of America Online's broadband unit. "They do want to buy experiences."


"We're completing the revolution begun in the bubble economy," says Glover Ferguson, chief scientist for consulting giant Accenture. "The basis for this next really big thing has begun to be laid down." This is a point of transition as the World Wide Web gives way to the world network.


Ten years ago, the consumer version of the Web grew out of the academic and military Internet that had been around since 1969. Amazon.com was founded in 1994, eBay and Yahoo in 1995, followed by truckloads of other consumer Web companies. They created the now-familiar system of Web sites built on HTML code and viewed on browsers. Those sites profoundly changed shopping, travel, news, dating, homework, music and many other aspects of life.


But after a boom and bust, the Web has stalled. Its power to rock our world is largely gone. The only company that's had that kind of impact in recent years is Google.


The Web, though, is becoming the first piece of the bigger network as it meshes with new technologies that started from disparate corners of the industry ? such as Wi-Fi wireless broadband connections, the Global Positioning System (GPS) and radio frequency identification tags (RFID).


The technologies are becoming a network of networks, enabled by a sea of powerful new devices and databases, all interlinked and talking to each other. To some extent, these are the "Web services" and .Net that Microsoft and other companies have tried to encourage, but broader and better.


Web creator Tim Berners-Lee has been talking about a version of such a system for a couple of years. "The Web can reach its full potential only if it becomes a place where data can be shared and processed by automated tools as well as by people," Berners-Lee said Wednesday at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.


Yet, "This was never really foreseen in the 1990s," says Alan Ramadan, a top executive at software company Macromedia and founder of Quokka Sports, an early Net multimedia firm that didn't survive. "We're out the other side, and the Internet has emerged as more of a fundamental world network."


On that world network, companies will build services only dreamed about during the Web mania. In the Web era, you went on the Internet to find something ? you sat down at a computer and tapped into search engines or shopping sites. In the new era, the network and the information will give you, unprompted, what you want depending on where you are and what you're doing.


We got to this point by accident.


Sure, prognosticators have long had visions of technologies coming together, but most networks and gadgets weren't built with that in mind. Since the mid-1990s, hundreds of companies invented and developed myriad technologies that all had their individual, narrower purposes.


For instance, the Pentagon put GPS in place for all-weather military navigation. The first full GPS satellite constellation was up and functional on March 9, 1994. Now GPS can let the network know when your car is approaching a McDonald's at lunchtime.


All of these pieces will contribute to the new world network:


?The Web. In 1994, it was static and slow. Most people dialed in from a PC and clicked on text or graphics. Since then, Sun Microsystems invented Java ? a programming language that can make a Web page become an interactive game or work tool. Macromedia made Flash, which helps bring multimedia to the Web. Little by little, homes got high-speed Internet connections ? cable modems or DSL ? until, as of July 2004, half of all homes with Internet connections had broadband.


Broadband brought video and music to the Web and, in turn, helped persuade media companies to create digital content, record labels to sell downloadable music on services such as iTunes, and movie companies to sell downloadable movies on Movielink and elsewhere. So entertainment is becoming digitized and ready to send anywhere.


?Infrastructure. Behind the Web, companies built infrastructure that stands ready to do much more than just run Web sites.


Orbitz started out as a site for selling airline tickets. It has since constructed a massive database of travel information and user preferences and a transaction system that can handle millions of purchases a day, says Chris Hjelm, Orbitz's chief technical officer. Now Orbitz can build on that, creating new kinds of services ? perhaps like Travel Butler ? at a low cost.


"We'll just continue to leverage that power," Hjelm says. One example that shows a glimpse of the future is Orbitz's Deal Detector, which monitors changing airfares on a particular route for a user.


Google, Amazon.com, eBay, Yahoo and other big Web players have built similarly turbocharged systems ? powerful engines waiting for those companies to step on the gas. Amazon.com did exactly that on Sept. 15, when it unveiled A9, its new search engine. A9 meshes the personalization capabilities Amazon has built over the past decade with Google-style search, taking a step toward delivering more useful information.


?Hardware. Just think of what's been developed in the past decade. Cellphones with cameras. BlackBerry e-mail devices. Pocket PCs such as Hewlett-Packard's iPaq. Music players such as the iPod. And $500 PCs with more power than anything that would cost 10 times that in 1994. All will play a role in the world network, helping messages, content and services reach users wherever they are.


?Software and more. Advances in software such as XML coding lets Web sites exchange information with each other automatically ? crucial for something like Travel Butler. Wireless networks, whether new high-speed cell systems or Wi-Fi, enable information to follow people. Meanwhile GPS and cellphones that can pinpoint the user's location can help the network deliver information based on where he or she is.


RFID is beginning to let inanimate things identify themselves wirelessly. It might be the most profound new piece of this world network. On Monday, IBM said it will spend $250 million to develop its RFID business. Companies are increasingly putting RFID tags on products. The tiny tags hold information about the items they are attached to, constantly pinging the network with radio signals It's the beginning of the network's ability to know not only where you are but what's around you.


Take your handheld wireless network device into your pantry 20 years from now, and it might instantly know all the items there and deliver a list of recipes you could make from the ingredients.


"We are beginning to give the gift of information technology to objects," says Ferguson.


One other factor makes tech experts optimistic about this next phase: The economics in place are 1,000 times better than 10 years ago, says Internet pioneer Marc Andreessen. "If you launch an Internet business today, it's probably going to cost you about a tenth of what it would have cost five years ago, but you're going to have 10 times more consumers you can address and probably 10 times the ad revenue," Andreessen says. "And people are going to be 10 times more willing to buy online. So you have this big economic swing" in favor of a next wave.


Around the tech industry, companies are working on embryonic versions of the next-generation world network. It's a priority at AOL. When the online service looks at its future, it sees itself detached from the PC ? a brand that transcends any one technology.


An early example is Radio@AOL. It started as 175 channels of commercial-free music you could hear only when signed on to AOL through a PC. Thanks to a deal announced in July with wireless-networking company D-Link, AOL members can now use a wireless router to get and stream Radio@AOL directly into their stereos without going through the PC.


The idea, says AOL's Hook, is to let users break off pieces of AOL. Maybe a user will listen to Radio@AOL through a cellphone or handheld computer while walking. AOL's photos, e-mail, news and other features will go through similar transformations. "We want users to be able to create an ecosystem of devices and put the AOL experience on them," Hook says.


On a business level, AT&T and Grand Central have started offering a system that can connect Web sites and services and let them share data. That would be necessary for companies that want to offer a service such as the fictional Travel Butler, says Grand Central's Minor, who previously co-founded tech news site CNet.


Motorola is aiming its whole corporate strategy at what it calls "seamless mobility." The company wants to make both the wireless gadgets and infrastructure to allow information to follow you anywhere, switching between wired, Wi-Fi and cell networks without you having to do anything.


"The big change is going to be when the Internet follows you, not you trying to follow the Internet," says Motorola CEO Ed Zander. "It's just there. Your life is just affected the way it's affected today by the lights in a room."


"We're at an incredibly exciting place," says Macromedia's Ramadan. "The kinds of products and services we'll see in the next five years will make those of the past five years look like child's play."

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