Trends to Track for 1998
By Mary J. Cronin, Ph.D.
Professor of Management
Strategic adviser of Mainspring Communications USA
Edition for portuguese EXPRESSO/Copyright Expresso/XXI translation
Edition on line Copyright Janela na Web
The beginning of a new year on the Internet inevitably triggers a fresh batch of predictions about network growth, new technologies, and potential profit centers. To get beyond the numbers game, it's interesting to probe for the deeper changes that are going to determine when and where the next generation of Internet applications may emerge. Here are the five big trends that I'll be watching closely in 1998:
1 - Internet Access Gets Deeper as Well as Broader
The growth of brand new Internet users may well slow down this year, but currently connected customers will be busy expanding the ways they can reach the Net. Multiple access devices and Internet accounts will allow users to log onto the Web for work, transact international business while on the road, scan Net news and entertainment at home via their television sets, check messages and send e-mail from cell phones. More and more of the world's daily work, communications, and information exchange will take place via the Internet, making continuous connectivity a necessity for serious business users. Commercial Internet connectivity needs will also drive demand for the faster, simpler, and more secure Internet access solutions that will eventually fuel a new burst of home and consumer connections.
2 - The Web Talks Back
Forget about developing flashy graphics and hundreds of pages of content for your Web site. This will be the year that demonstrates once and for all that the Web is destined to be a telephone and not a magazine. The Internet's ability to handle real time audio has already been demonstrated by millions of computer-to-computer conversations and hundreds of daily radio broadcasts. More and more Web sites feature an audio component, but very few have used audio to significantly change the way they deliver information or handle interaction with users. Now the voice of the Web is about to redefine everything from customer support, to staff training, to the distribution of popular music.
Huge product service centers with banks of telephones linked to computer files will start to evolve into self-service Web sites where customers can easily answer routine questions and then click on a "voice" button to interact with support staff as needed. Inside companies, corporate Web sites will help employees keep up with the changing technology by providing interactive training and information services that feature audio. On the home front, consumers will have more opportunities to hear personalized news updates and music broadcasts, to speak up during online discussion sessions, and to download commercial quality recordings via the Web.
3 - Security Priorities Shift to Managing Digital Risk Effectively
Business and consumers alike are coming to terms with the Internet's security issues and becoming more sophisticated about choosing a solution that matches the situation. Security systems-from basic e-mail encryption to digital certificates to establish on-line identity, to implementation of financial transaction standards like SET-are already widely available, and this year will see more of them built into business Web sites and even into the standard Web browser interface on every desktop. On the financial side, the major card associations-VISA, MasterCard, and American Express, are pushing for single-function charge cards to evolve into smart cards that handle multiple credit, debit, and electronic cash functions and manage privacy and digital security on the Internet. Banks and investment firms are scrambling to offer advanced services that make it easier and more secure to move and manage money via the Net. By the end of the year, the flow of online transactions will increase dramatically. Even insurance companies, which have been slow to embrace responsibility for digital risk management, are stepping up to the competition. Traveller's Insurance, for example, has introduced a program called SafeWeb to insure online transactions from loss.
4 - More Multinational Corporations Bet Their Business on the Net
Technology companies-from IBM and Microsoft to Dell Computers and Digital Equipment are already on board the Internet bandwagon, and they have a strong track record of Net-based products and sales. But in most industries, the big players have been in trial mode, stopping short of a major Internet investment that could threaten their traditional products and distribution channels. The news for 1998 is that financial services, manufacturers, publishing, and retail giants will implement full-blown business strategies centered around electronic commerce with the Web as a primary channel for products and services. The era of big business competition on the Internet is just beginning to heat up.
5 - Electronic Commerce Turns the Corner and Finally Takes Off
This will be the year that the Net graduates from "experimental" to "essential" status for businesses around the world. The combination of more consumer and business Internet connections, access from multiple devices, more serious investment by major brand name companies in Web commerce, and smoother ways of protecting transactions will provide the momentum that's needed to bring electronic commerce into the mainstream.