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20 Years of the Web - My Take

EMC did a great compilation of perspectives of the Web at 20 in their latest edition of ON Magazine. Len Davanna shared his thoughts and threw the gauntlet to me.  It is an interesting milestone to consider because it essentially spans my adult life. In that regard I have been incredibly fortunate to sit at the cusp of a world altering technology change.  It's a little like that game 'what did you grow up without'. For me, I didn't even have a TV growing up, let alone what we currently call 'devices'.  My father did use a reel-to-reel recorder to capture some of my more precious childhood sayings like 'durch fried dicken' and 'I amn't' but that is really the extent to which technology seemed to evade my early life. Going back one generation, my mother grew up in a farm house in Indiana with no running water or centralized heat.  I digress a bit but the technical change that I've witnessed in my lifetime and the lifetime of close relatives is astounding. Mind-boggling even.  Gives me pause.

I first started using the Web (although I started using computers in the early 80s) in college to send text-based emails to a friend who was in Russia for a post-graduate year.  I didn't have email access in my first job out of college but by the time I had joined a consulting firm in the mid-90s we had email and a remote connection so I learned early what it meant to work virtually, albeit on dial-up at hotel rates that would make one tear up today. It was there that I managed a section of the intranet and developed some very shoddy HTML skills. From there on out, I caught the internet software/services bug working at both an enterprise software company that built one of the new breed of online applications and at a web start-up in Silicon Valley under the tutelage of Guy Kawasaki, among others. The Web has been both good and bad for me professionally - it's opened up diverse opportunities for me and it's taken me on a roller coaster that definitely also has gone down. The experience however, has given me vast access to how the consumer and business world is being affected. Social technologies have now exposed and supercharged the fundamental architectural benefits of the Web and made those benefits available to the common person. The people of the world are now accessible to each other via a click.

But to answer more specific questions:

How has the web changed my life?

  • I've used it to find jobs, apartments, cars, bookclubs, used furniture, sports teams, and yes - even my husband. That's pretty much the important stuff in life, right?
  • The majority of my career has been in jobs or companies that could not have existed before I graduated from high school (so much for being Secretary of State)
  • The new business dynamic has enabled me to start a business where I don't feel like I have to rely on push marketing and sales, which I have always been a bit uncomfortable with because I feel like a good product or service should be the bedrock of a company, not the ability to coercively convince customers.

So I'm a fan.

How has the Web changed business and society?

Society and organizations function based on what they understand about themselves and what they understand about their environments.  The Web has changed dramatically the speed of information flow, the reach of each individual, and the individual trust that often accompanies the information. The results are:

  • The ability to understand much more deeply what the environment thinks of you and of other entities.
  • The ability to make very quick decisions if you have a network of information suppliers whom you trust. The better you trust your network, the faster the decision making cycle.
  • The ability to maintain lots of weak, persistent linkages whether between friends or business partners.

You can see where this might affect businesses. The older businesses that have entrenched cultures and processes to aggregate information and make decisions are at an increasing disadvantage to those that can quickly adjust and adapt to changing conditions - whether because their employees are actually loosely tied contractors or because they can meet the changing needs of a customer base before their competitors know there is a change afoot. I termed this Information Arbitrage in an early post but Tammy Erickson also wrote an interesting post for Harvard Business Review recently called The Moment Social Media Becomes Serious Business.

I think we'll spend the next decade or more adjusting our organizations to this new information environment and those that adjust faster will win market share.

What do you think the Web will look like in twenty years?

This is always a dicey question - if I had a clue about the potential of human creativity and innovation... well, I'm not sure I'd be sitting here blogging but... I'll take a whack at this. I think the web will consist of:

  • Cloud-based access to almost all data, business logic, and applications.
  • Personalized web interfaces that account for an individual's learning style, content/data needs, workflow needs (for home & work), privacy requirements, style preferences and it will proactively deliver 'smart' content, triggers, and connections relevant to our current activity. 
  • A wide range of smart things (furnaces, cars, retail stores, etc) that deliver data, at appropriate times and contexts, to our current interface (PC, phone, tablet, car, fridge, etc.).
  • Smart filtering controls that allow us to manage the flow in a way that gives us our sanity back if we want it.
  • Individual publishing engines that share various information automatically with others in our network, based on rules and privacy structures we define.
  • Organizations that feed data/content but who rely less and less on customer interfaces/websites.
  • A vast digital divide that causes further political rifts between those with access and those without - and the resulting, amorphic anger that goes with being disadvantaged.
It's going to be a wild ride.  I'm ready!

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