Ann Arbor Business to Business
Small Business and the Internet

Business Unusual

December 1999

By Mike Gould

I realized that this is my last column of the nineties, and it put me in a ruminative frame of mind. Nothing like a trio of zeroes on the odometer to send you looking wistfully into the rear-view mirror, while simultaneously turning on the brights to see what potholes lie ahead.

While the discerning reader will no doubt note and applaud my disuse of the phrase "information highway" in the automotive-based intro above, it is cars that prompt this bit of pondering. Specifically, it's this news item from Wired News, (available online at:,1294,32366,00.html):

The Web Way or the Highway 5.Nov.1999 DETROIT "General Motors Corp. said Friday that it would move all of its US$87 billion in annual purchases to its new e-commerce Web site within about two years and would pressure its suppliers to follow suit."

Here is one of the biggest movers of goods in the world telling the world that if they want to work with GM, they have to work the Web. Not bad for a system that is only 5 years old.

Looking Back
Whenever someone tells me of their displeasure with their computer, be it the slowness of the Web or the Blue Screen of Death, I remind them that this whole digital ecosystem is barely 20 years old. The Apple II came out in the early 80's, followed by the first IBM systems, the Mac in 1984, then the plethora of PC clones that fill the landscape today. (Yeah, yeah, I know, nobody calls them clones anymore; IBM's contribution to the desktop is all but forgotten now.) The Internet, of which the World Wide Web is only a subset, is but 30 years old. I tell whiners to think back to where airplanes were when they were 20 years old; our desktop computers are biplanes.

The onslaught of technical innovation tends to move faster than anyone can comfortably keep up with. And it and regularly outstrips the technical support and even software upgrades necessary to keep it all running. Here is where the aviation metaphor breaks down; we actually have rocket ships on our desktops, it's just that the pilots are fresh out of balloon school, and the mechanics are still mastering torque wrenches.

As advanced as everything has become, computers are still too complicated for the average person; they still crash too regularly, produce baffling error messages, and take way too much time and energy to produce the simplest output. Do you really need a 20 gigabyte drive and 64 Megabytes of RAM to produce a memo? Microsoft says you do.

And computers take way too long to start up in the morning. Actually, so do I; maybe this helps make me the geek I am, but I digress. Waiting for your Mac or PC to wake up enough to show you your email is like some ritual our grandparents went through. They would crowd around an enormous console radio waiting for the tubes to warm up enough so that they could listen to Jack Benny (the Seinfield of his day, for you whippersnappers out there.)

Fast Forward
So what's ahead for the concerned business person of tomorrow? Well, hopefully the above little inconveniences will get ironed out: the sleep function of computers will be improved to the point where we never really turn them off, documentation, operating systems and support will improve, and as newer generations graduate from properly-equipped schools, the workforce will have a better handle on dealing with computer-based businesses. Why, computer support people might even become an endangered species. Yeah, right. Ahh hah hah hah hah...

And the World Wide Web will change everything. The story about GM is just the tip of the iceberg; the WWW will be the dominating factor in most businesses, big and small. How well you interact with the Internet will determine how well your business works, grows, and presents itself to the outside world. There may be some hot dog stands and local car washes that won't be on the WWW, but they won't do as well as the ones that are. (Hey; it's cheap and easy - post your hours, your car soap features, your menus, your weekly specials, your coupons; let customers email you how much mustard, and you can have it ready when they walk by...).

Golden Convergence
This is a phrase coined by Robert Morgan, a financial analyst, and it refers to the coming together of most of the electron-based life forms out there - the Internet, broadcast TV and radio, your microwave oven and air freshener dispenser. The theory is that at some point in the future (known to us technical types as Real Soon Now), all the above will speak the same language down the same set of wires (or wireless). You can already surf the web on your TV and watch TV on your computer - in the near future your refrigerator, realizing that you are out of beer, will email the Big 10 Party Store, who will dispatch a beverage transmission technician to set things right. Or maybe the beer will just flow through the same wire, who knows?

Out of the Nineties, into the Zips. Happy New Year!

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