Author: Yogi Schulz

The Internet is evolving into a more powerful tool that can be harnessed to help businesses grow in size and profitability. The enhanced functionality and higher bandwidth of the Internet is becoming increasingly integral to business operations

As business and technology managers, we’ve become quite comfortable with the Internet. Virtually all of us rely on it to some degree to help drive growth and boost competitiveness.

But the Web is not static, and knowledge of the online world gained today may not be relevant tomorrow. Instead, businesses must be prepared for a constantly evolving online world. Some of these developments can be clearly seen on the horizon, others may appear suddenly and dramatically as the Web. But all of them will have an impact on the bottom line.

What follows are the top online trends organizations should be prepared to face in the years ahead.

In Summary:

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Social computing for businesses

As a catchphrase, social computing doesn’t sound very business-like. But social computing is about enabling compelling and effective social interactions. Isn’t that what effective work teams are all about? When we collaborate on business projects or problems, share ideas, or comment on the work of others, we are using the same social computing concepts at work that teenagers use at play.

Meanwhile, businesses have largely solved all the simple problems that individuals or small co-located teams can address. The next set of business challenges will require the efforts of larger, multidisciplinary teams that typically are geographically dispersed. The development of blockbuster consumer products, for example, such as automobiles or household appliances, often involve designers on one continent, manufacturing on another, and distribution and sales almost everywhere else.

In these complex business scenarios, social computing environments can spark innovation and enhance team effectiveness and make the difference between success and failure for businesses.

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Ubiquitous – and mobile – Internet access

Most Canadian homes and businesses now have access to high-speed Internet connections. We’ve become accustomed to its speed and convenience. Thus, when we leave either of these premises and require mobile access, we immediately notice three things: bandwidth drops, service becomes patchy and costs rise.
These shortcomings, however, will soon disappear, and staying in touch with employees, partners and customers will become easier.

For example, marketing staff will be able to wirelessly access inventory or order status data from anywhere without the CFO having a coronary about skyrocketing telecommunications costs. Similarly, potential customers will be able to find business information using their Web-enabled, GPS-capable devices.

The mobile Internet means that surfers looking at business Web sites are increasingly likely to use mobile devices rather than PCs to view Web pages. Because these screens are so much smaller, delivering a good experience requires applying formatting standards to Web pages that maximize their readability.

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A new world of security

Today, bad guys on the Web can exploit software bugs and poor server management practices to spread harmful viruses, launch an avalanche of spam mail or steal money through identity theft. As counter-measures, businesses are investing significant dollars and staff time in firewalls, anti-virus and anti-spyware software. None of this activity builds businesses or improves service. It’s an expensive and annoying, albeit necessary, distraction. One consequence of this is that we’ve become cautious about creating profiles and shopping online in some circumstances.

In the future, the Web will become more secure through a concept called federated identity management, where people entrust their personal profile details to a security and identity service organization. Then we grant selected merchants and community organizations of our choosing access to parts of our personal data. Several technology organizations are defining the underlying standards and have begun to offer identity management products.

As a result, it will become more difficult to surf the Web anonymously and to behave fraudulently. In the meantime, businesses can create a safe and secure environment for customers by employing encryption, h3 passwords and superior server management practices.

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The rise of Web services

The traditional software license model that consists of paying an initial fee followed by annual maintenance fees is today being augmented by software plus services. Under this model, businesses pay a monthly fee for software usage. The advantage to businesses is the avoidance of a large initial payment, access to a cost profile that more closely matches the value profile and reduced desktop support costs.

Similarly, the traditional hardware model that consists of paying a purchase price followed by annual maintenance fees is being augmented by hardware-as-a-service. For this, businesses pay a monthly fee for the server capacity consumed. The advantage to the business is the avoidance of a large initial acquisition cost, the elimination of demand forecasting and the avoidance of operating costs for a data center.

Businesses can benefit from software- and hardware-as-a-service by outsourcing more information technology related functions to specialists.

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The Web will become smarter

While the Web is incredibly useful, it can still be frustrating. In addition to the annoying “Page not found” messages, some general search terms, such as “Hockey tickets”, can have many meanings and generate a huge and useless result set.

In the future the Web will become much smarter. Search will not just be based on the strings of letters we enter but will also consider the meanings of the words that we understand well, but which the computer does not. The emerging concept that considers the meaning of words is called the Semantic Web. It will improve search result sets by returning only the most relevant page links.

We can also expect search to make use of personal profile information such as our age, geographic location, education, professional and personal interests to filter search result sets for added relevance to us.

Businesses can prepare for the Semantic Web by ensuring that their Web pages contain sufficient text to describe the content of each page, make use of XML to describe pages and minimize the use of dynamically generated content.

Yogi Schulz is a Calgary, Alberta-based contributing writer to the Microsoft Midsize Business Center. His work has appeared in Computing Canada, EDGE, The Calgary Herald and Microsoft Ideas. He typically consults with CIO’s in the energy, government and real estate industries.

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