The time to get on board is now
Technologists busily reinventing the World Wide Web say franchises can look forward to an Internet where it will be much easier to collaborate, innovate, and to manipulate data and software on a wide variety of Net-friendly devices.
Driving this change—a trend loosely referred to as Web 2.0—will be the rapid and widespread adoption of social networks by retailers and other businesses, which employees will seize on to collaborate internally, and which customers and clients will use to play an active part in forging company direction on goods and services.
Technology market research firm Forrester predicts that business investment in social networks designed for customer and client input alone will reach nearly $1 billion annually by 2013, as corporations capitalize on a trend first recognized by companies like MySpace and Facebook.
Denny's, for example, has incarnated the Denny's AllNighter social network at its site. It's a music-oriented cyber-hangout where the franchisor encourages customers to suggest bands for the site to "adopt." Chosen bands get free publicity on the site on the social network's AllNighter blog. And fans get to post pictures of themselves at their favorite Denny's, as they pull all-nighters after their favorite music-makers play.
Meanwhile, Jenny Craig has whipped up the Jenny Craig Community, a place where dieters can participate in weight-loss forums, find a support buddy, engage in real-time chat or follow Valerie Bertinelli's blog, where the celebrity chronicles here own weight-loss journey.
And at Ben & Jerry's, ice cream fanatics can join the "Chunk Spelunker" club. Here, those in the dairy herd can get exclusive invitations to special Ben & Jerry's events, chat, play games, enter contests, and get a chance to be an Honorary Flavor Judicator.
Initially, franchises will be able to source software for building these social networks from small and nimble boutique providers like Neighborhood America and Leverage Software, which offer tool suites that bundle together the most popular facets of social networking, such as profile creation, blogs, discussion forums, and content uploading and sharing, according to Forrester.
But by 2013, expect the biggest guns in the software industry, including SAP, IBM, and Microsoft, to have fully incorporated Web 2.0 tools into their product lines, says G. Oliver Young, author of the April 2008 Forrester report, "Global Enterprise Web 2.0 Market Forecast: 2007 To 2013."
"SAP, IBM, Microsoft and others are already beginning to give away Web 2.0 functionality for free to drive use of their core applications and value engines," Young says. "Microsoft's SharePoint has a lightweight wiki, while IBM is now offering social networking mashup technology through its Lotus Connections and Lotus mashups products." (A "wiki" is a network-based collaboration tool; "mashups"are tools that enable users to combine data from previously disparate databases often residing in different software packages.)
Meanwhile, equally influential in the reinvented web will be a new approach to computing where most—if not all—of a company's software applications will reside on the universally accessible web, rather than remain locked away on mainframes or individual PCs—a concept known as "cloud computing." Emblematic of this trend is Microsoft's new Live Mesh, software, which is being designed to link together all of a company's Internet devices—including desktops, laptops, Apple Mac computers, cameras, mobile phones, media centers, and digital picture frames—for instant collaboration.
Essentially, the software will enable a firm to synchronize all data and applications across all devices as much as possible, enabling those devices to "become aware of each other" as long as each is linked to the Internet by a wire or by WiFi, according to Amit Mital, Microsoft's general manager of Live Mesh.
A franchisor using Live Mesh, for example, would be able to take a picture of a new product just arriving in a store, then quickly post it to the company website and simultaneously broadcast it to the cell phones of all company sales personnel. Currently, Live Mesh links only Windows-based PCs connected to the web via wire or WiFi, although plans are in development to enable firms to link mobile phones and Apple Mac computers within the same Mesh, Mital says.
Of course, in its ideal form, cloud computing will not be driven by just one major company like Microsoft, or favor the linking of devices that run on one type of software, according to Tim O'Reilly, CEO of O'Reilly Media, a computer book publishing firm that also hosts conferences on Web 2.0. Instead, he says, the purest implementation of cloud computing will enable any computerized device a company uses to simultaneously interconnect with every other computerized device in a company's technology arsenal.
That ethic—a business world based on the premise that all software should be able to run easily on all computerized devices, regardless of what company creates that device or software—is another major component of the reinvented web, often referred to as "open source computing."
Most technologists point to the Linux operating system—an alternative to Microsoft's Windows that is free, owned by no company in particular, and is specifically designed to encourage innovation by anyone and everyone interested in enhancing the system—as a key example of that ethic in action. But more recently, extremely influential technology companies like Yahoo! have decided to embrace the ethic as a core business philosophy.
In fact, Ari Balogh, Yahoo!'s chief technology officer, says the company is in the process of rewiring itself "from inside out" to ensure that independent software developers will be able to easily develop new applications for the Yahoo! community—and instantly post those applications to Yahoo!
In practice, Balogh says this added openness will result, in part, in an ever-increasing number of data mashup tools, which will enable Yahoo! users to combine data available on Yahoo! in new ways for highly specific research needs. An individual company embracing this ethic, for example, could enable a customer user of its company social network to post a mashup tool on the company website that could be used to automatically find and post links to blogs authored by site members who are extremely positive about a new company product offering.
Sensors of the world unite
Finally, another cornerstone of the reinvented web will be the increasing proliferation of computerized sensors programmed to continually update the web with time-sensitive data, according to O'Reilly. Essentially, these sensors will eliminate the drudgery of inputting such data by hand.
O'Reilly points to vehicle traffic analysis systems such as Dash Navigation and Microsoft's ClearFlow (still in development) as pioneers of this trend. Both software solutions rely on GPS devices embedded in a large number vehicles to automatically relay data to web-based software, which is used to analyze traffic patterns and suggest alternative routes for drivers.
As the future web rolls out, we will all be asked to "contribute our sensors," says O'Reilly, to help drive a wide array of analysis software tools that reside there. Unfortunately, there is a dark side to all this frothy innovation. As more and more data and software applications migrate to the web, O'Reilly warns there is a real threat that ultimate control of most of those applications and data may become centralized in the hands of a few large technology companies. "We need to watch that," he says.
Fortunately, those who believe that everything that is new is not necessarily better can take solace in the prediction that the revolutionary tool that made the web possible, the web browser, will most likely be around for a long time to come. The reason? Despite the fact that the web browser is "so nineties," the tool is such an entrenched part of the web experience for users across the globe, it make no sense to reinvent that wheel.
"There's really no incentive," says Mark Andreessen, co-founder of Netscape, the company that created the web browser that has played a pivotal role in the emergence of the web.
Joe Dysart is an Internet speaker and business consultant based in New York City. He can be reached at 646-233-4089, firstname.lastname@example.org, or www.joedysart.com.