Friday, November 2, 2007

I missed World Internet Day

A version of this piece was published in Marketing in 2007

Like me, you probably missed World Internet Day last week.  As celebrations went, it was a pretty low-key affair, un-noticed by the majority of the world who one might suspect were too busy just using it to join in with the revelry.

It’s just 13 years since the first commercial website (for DEC, the Digital Equipment Corporation – now a part of Hewlett Packard), and we’ve come a long way from there.

Back then, web pages were static, had grey backgrounds, and blue lines around the pictures to show you could click on them.  The typeface was chosen by the user rather than the designer, and we had to dial up using a modem (and a slow one at that) to get online.

The user experience was rubbish.  But the potential was obvious.

Whilst investors, commentators and entrepreneurs mostly raved about the technology, what was clear was that here was a means of connecting people with each other.

And now, it’s hard to think what we’d do without it.  From the humble email has emerged the Blackberry, from bulletin boards on Usenet the giant social network phenomenon has evolved.  People watch TV online, they get news online, they shop online.  They find out about ambulance response times and school results near the house they plan to buy, and research their genealogy using census and registrars data published online.

A medium that started as the province of geeks has turned into a global phenomenon that’s changing business and society.  Within 3 years in the UK, 75% of homes are expected to have broadband, and the online advertising market will have overtaken TV.

For years, the medium has been dominated by pure-plays – businesses that had their origins online.  Now, the titans of the media world are determined to fight back, with the consumer the beneficiary as NBC Universal teams up with NewsCorp to launch online video site

But for all the amazing discoveries, launches and invention of the past 13 years, I still can’t help feeling we’ve only scratched the surface in terms of the potential for change that the internet will ultimately deliver.

The scale and scope of the change that the internet will bring on us defies our capacity to envision it.  Many people react by denying it – either giving up, or deciding to simply let all the change play out before acting.  It would be so comforting if we could predict what’s going to happen, but we don’t have that luxury.

As Larry Landwehr wrote in 1993, “It's like trying to predict back in 1910 the impact of the automobile on society - the highway system, gasoline refineries, motels instead of hotels, new dating patterns, increased social mobility, commuting to work, the importance of the rubber industry, smog, drive-thru restaurants, mechanized warfare, and on and on”

But the fact it’s so hard to project what’s going to happen shouldn’t stop us trying.  Fortunes will be won and lost on the bets we make here, and thinking about how different developments, ideas and inventions will lead is how we protect the future wealth of our shareholders and the strength of our brands.

William Gibson, writing in 1995, thought that the internet was as significant to humans as the birth of cities.  To him the emergence of internet banking, telemedicine, video on demand are merely signs that bigger things are afoot – they’re not the end of the game.

Amazingly, we seem to have absorbed the benefits the internet has brought us without really noticing.  We think nothing of booking holidays online, of checking our bank account or of video calling a cousin in Australia for free.

But it’s encouraging that we are this blasé – I suspect it means our capacity for change is greater than perhaps we imagine.  So I’m pleased we missed World Internet Day – I suspect it means we’re getting on with creating tomorrow.