Many as-yet-unforeseen new developments will create enormous societal, cultural, and business opportunities over the next decade, just as long as we don't make irreversible decisions down the wrong path. There's been an important and relatively sudden change taking place over the last couple of years in the way that we interact with the Web. While direct access or search activity has been (and still is) the most common way that we access the content and applications of the Web, new ways have been rapidly growing and competing with how we work online, both at home and at work.
Thus these new models, exemplified by social networking sites like Facebook or mobile apps on platforms like the iPhone, Palm's new webOS, and Android, will ultimately herald a change in the way that we work with our IT systems in the enterprise.
The once relatively unified world of the Internet, with a few major top-level types of access directly connected to it (browser, e-mail, IRC client, newsreader, etc.) and a few key sub-apps such as search that virtually everyone online used have been extended -- as well as fragmented -- into popular new channels into which users are now rapidly moving en masse.
That's not to say that direct usage of the Internet (loading up and using sites and apps via the traditional Web browser) is going away. It's still far and away the most common way to interact with the Web today and will likely be that way for quite some time, if not forever.But real shifts in both online platform alternatives and in the mobile market are beginning to usher in foundational new usage patterns by users. These new channels -- of which the latest generation of mobile apps and social networking platforms, which are often tightly integrated with the Web but are not truly one with it, are just the two biggest examples -- demonstrate what is probably a generational transformation of the vital border between us and the Internet.
And this is the crux of the point: Where the point of user attention and interaction resides and who controls it is one of the most important conversations between us and our "preferred intermediaries", a fancy term for who we like to work with to interact with the Web. This in turn has significant implications for enterprise intranets, our often clunky yet essential local "Web" in our organizations.
Why are these changes happening? There are at least two major reasons:The first is that user attention on the Web has been moving to social networks, best exhibited by Facebook, which has been the single largest gainer of online usage in the last 3 years, over all other applications. Even e-mail has been eclipsed in many markets and only search remains more dominant. Social networks, which are platforms in their own right -- just like the Web, but also have touchpoints well outside of it -- have come into their own as competing yet codependent platforms that sprawl across the Internet, telecommunications infrastructure, mobile devices, and desktop computers.
The second reason is the failure of Internet standards bodies and the larger development community to come up with an effective solution for the mobile Internet. Without an approach that let mobile device makers tap into the full power of their devices for the benefit of users, they were forced to come up with their own models for applications. That the best of these apps (and probably a near majority) use Web resources behind the scenes, yet provide their own local, non-Web user experiences (UX), provides serious and disruptive competition for direct usage of the Web. And though next-generation mobile app usage is just in its infancy, Apple can already claim that there have been two billion downloads of over 85,000 different apps from the App Store in a very short amount of time (less than two years.)
The new intermediaries are not really the Web
This should be a wakeup call to those that use the Internet and think about how to strategically apply it to their lives and business. As I'm fond of saying, the reason that Internet has been so popular up until this point is that it's fundamentally system without an owner (though there are many who try) that is proven to be a (reasonably) safe, stable, and open global environment for us to make extensive commitments, whether that's just the technologies for our personal or internal use or its business models to evolve and extend the our products and services.
The key here is that like the platform wars of old, and which is being revisited again with cloud computing, the same is likely going happen with our points of use and the Web/intranet. Our new preferred intermediaries, whether that is apps on the iPhone platform or personal/business interaction/app use on Facebook, are controlled by commercial entities and built on technologies and legal frameworks that they've created and own. These platforms have already become enormously powerful in their own right in the short time they've been here, with Facebook Connect driving the Web identity of thousands of other company's apps and some iPhone UXs being the only, or least the dominant, front-end for some Web-connected apps. In this latter scenario, the Web becomes a dumb pipe for other, non-Web platforms. Users are increasingly using mobile apps instead of the Web. I know, I'm one of them.
That this is a good thing or a bad thing is, of course, in the eye of the beholder. Successful social networks were created by private sector companies using the right online business models. So too have been effective, high quality mobile applications. The standards of the Web, key to the often wild success of the Internet, didn't save the day for once. But the Internet has grown up and it's a different place today, with a lot more variety from powerful rich user experiences and mashups to everyone trying to build their own platforms within -- or right over -- the Web platform. The latter is increasingly proving to be the most successful new model for 21st century digital businesses.
The new, new Web: Business-friendly, sometimes
There are a number of implications that naturally fall out of an analysis of this newly emerging set of quasi-Web platforms. Note that these are things, like the iPhone or social network platforms, which greatly benefit from the Web but aren't really the Web. While these points can be argued to some degree, the overall direction is clear and there at least have been found ways to co-opt the Web. If this is true, all of us, personally and as organizations, need to be cognizant of what these shifts might mean. From what we can see, it is this:
- The new "quasi-Web" platforms are a consumer world phenomenon in which businesses have limited participation. At least for now, you will encounter trouble adopting the standards and technologies of platforms such as Facebook and the iPhone for your individual business. Despite being such broad, popular phenomena, both can be extremely useful in a business setting. However,, they're largely proprietary (though sometimes well documented) and there's no open way to participate in their evolution. You also can't today build internal business applications for either platform (you can build external ones for sure), at least without serious hacks that are unsupported either company. There are alternatives of course and OpenSocial for social networks while Android and RIM both allow custom-apps to be used at will, but the former has languished in some obscurity lately and the latter still requires an entirely new non-Web platform to be an intermediary. It's also worth noting that the iPhone and Facebook are also the only platforms strong enough today to potentially control the shots at anything near a level playing field with the Web.
- It's about providing effective new user experiences. Social graphs & networks, activity streams, microblogging, mashups, apps that take full advantage of today's mobile device capabilities, and so on are on their way to becoming tomorrow's standard way of operating for business applications. We are learning that these new models can offer many potential benefits in usability, productivity, collaboration, and new and better ways of doing business. As long as the real cost in flexibility, choice, and giving up control isn't too high that is. This is one area where the slow adoption of technology advances by businesses may actually turn out to be a good thing.
- In the end, it's more about who controls the data, and less where it's experienced; new user channels strengthens this model. The strategic imperative of Web companies is to own the best class of data and become the indispensable provider for it. Opening it up and letting partners build upon it is a vital business model today, with strategies such as open APIs. By having many additional consumption points in the marketplace, from all Web-connected platforms and their associated apps, is now a key plank to online success. Thus fragmentation of Web UX can actually increase business opportunities, even as it makes it more tedious and difficult to get reach into the whole marketplace in the medium-term (long-term takes care of itself in the self-service partnership models of open platforms.)
- The future workplace will be more social and more mobile, probably a lot more. It'll take a while since IT inside of most organizations today still has limited competitive pressure (although increasingly off-premises SaaS is giving it a run for its money.) But users "vote with their feet to the platforms they prefer" and while consumerization of the enterprise isn't a good goal for its own sake, more and more businesses I talk to are adding or preparing to add much better support for these new channels. While many companies now have internal social networks (usually in their infancy in terms of strategic use), mobile applications have much further to go in the enterprise but also highlight major opportunities.
- Companies that have a strong commitment to open Web standards may be challenged to keep up with these trends. The trend, at least for now, is that many major developments related to the Web are being driven by the private sector and not Web organizations, standards bodies, open source projects, or other relatively benign entities. Time will tell if this is a lasting trend but open Web standards have been a critical direction that has given us an almost infinite cornucopia of benefits, despite some exceptions (the Flash platform being one of the biggest.) For now, it's not likely that jumping on board these trends immediately will confer major strategic business advantage for enterprises, but there are significant opportunities to be had. Just be very careful of the slippery slope.
For my part, I don't think these trends as a whole are necessarily bad ones. Hundreds of millions of people around the world benefit from them every day. But since all technology-based developments can be a two-edged sword, it's up to us to make sure we're making the right choices. I deeply believe social networks, cutting-edge mobile experiences, and many as-yet-unforeseen new developments will create enormous societal, cultural, and business opportunities over the next decade, just as long as we don't make irreversible decisions down the wrong path.
Are you finding yourselves using less of the classic Web? Why or why not?