The Next Web
Thursday, February 10, 2000
Publication: Executive Edge
by Judy Ward
At home, you’ve gotten used to waiting five minutes for your favorite sports news page to download. At work, slowdowns and sheer unreliability keep you from moving your most business-critical functions to the Internet. Indeed, all the hype and promise of the Internet too often seems to boil down to maddening delays and missing messages. Never fear. There’s hope–and new challenges–on the way for frustrated Internet users.
Internet2, a research project aimed at developing the next generation of Internet technology, is beginning to see results. And once its cutting-edge technology moves from hype to reality, it will change not only how data moves around the Internet, but how companies determine strategies for interacting with business partners and customers alike. While the Internet functions today largely as an elaborate information-gathering service and a venue for simple back-and-forth communications among people, pretty soon it will evolve into a forum for much richer media and instantaneous collaboration.
More than 160 universities form the cornerstone of the research devoted to the next phase of the Internet, all of it coordinated by the University Corporation for Advanced Internet Development, or ucaid, a nonprofit organization established in 1997. The universities are working in At home, you’ve gotten used to waiting five minutes for your favorite sports news page to download. At work, slowdowns and sheer unreliability keep you from moving your most business-critical functions to the Internet. Indeed, all the hype and promise of the Internet too often seems to boil down to maddening delays and missing messages. Never fear. There’s hope–and new challenges–on the way for frustrated Internet users.
Already, University of Michigan researchers who use an observatory in Greenland no longer have to travel. With the use of a real-time, Internet2 connection, they can not only examine data, they can do so immediately, and right alongside other researchers scattered around the country, with whom they can interact and share remote instruments and data sources. How? By using extremely instant, high-quality audio and video connections.
Academia’s need for quality, long-distance collaboration reflects the impending demands of the corporate world-which presently depends on expensive dedicated lines for such purposes-and paves the way for cost-effective solutions that work on public Internet infrastructure. Suddenly, it becomes a very real possibility, for instance, for automobile designers in California to work over the Internet on an online three-dimensional car model simultaneously with engineers in Detroit and marketers in Europe, so they can decide as a group if and how to change it.
But the bottom-line goal is to enable a new generation of applications. “The next generation is definitely going to be a lot faster,” says John Patrick, vice president of Internet technology at IBM. “But what’s important is what we will do with all that speed.” That, of course, is up to every corporation with aspirations on the Web. “The Internet is already causing entire industries to completely rethink the way they operate,” says Van Houweling. “Tomorrow’s Internet will force companies and industries to continually evaluate and adapt the way they operate internally and how they relate externally.”
So don’t worry too much about the technological challenges that the Internet’s next generation of gadgets will hold for your company. Instead, consider how you may need to fundamentally change your entire business strategy and culture-yet again.
“The world is going to become a lot more competitive, and everything is going to speed up,” says IBM’s Patrick. “We can’t think and plan the way we have in the past.” That’s already true to some extent about the existing Internet, of course, but the pressure will intensify: While a clothing retailer may have been forced to put its catalogue online in the past couple of years, for example, that retailer will soon face the much more complex task of creating new, heavily interactive approaches to dealing with consumers via the Internet.
Lots of new fiber-optic cable is being laid, and software is being developed to make leading-edge routers and switches handle high-performance applications and more traffic. But Internet2 isn’t intended to create an entirely new physical network to replace the current Internet. Instead, its technological advances will be folded into the existing infrastructure. Two research areas appear to hold particular promise:
Differentiated quality of service
“A whole segment of the U.S. and world economy is hesitant to use the Internet for basic business applications. The reason is quality of service,” says Guy Cook, vice president of Internet services at Qwest Communications International. “There is no guarantee that information is going to get from point A to point B.” Not to mention how long it takes to make the journey.
Now imagine Internet transmissions as reliable as phone service. Differentiated quality of service, known as QoS, will make it happen-for a price. Today transmissions over the Internet get delivered on a first-come, first-served basis, but QoS will entail new hardware and software that will allow for prioritization of some transmissions over others.
“Except in very limited cases, you and I have no way of getting better service today,” says Stephen Wolff, executive director of the advanced internet initiatives division at Cisco Systems, Inc. “No matter how much money we pay an Internet provider for a fast link, it is still a fast link to a swamp in the middle. This technology provides the means to allow Internet service providers to offer better service for more money.”
Some believe that corporations will be more likely to shift some functions from private networks to the lower-cost Internet. “The public network will act, look, and feel like private networks. When that happens, watch out, because many more applications will be run over the Internet,” Cook says. “The Internet as a public network already allows incredible reach. Combine that with quality of service and security, and corporations will be able to do more with less.”
But GartnerGroup Research Director Erik Paulak is more cautious. “While a minute of voice traffic or a megabyte of data gets cheaper,” says Paulak, “overall volume will go up proportionately higher than costs decline, so you may actually spend more in total.”
For ordinary users, QoS could create a system of haves and have-nots among Internet users, although that’s true for consumers of many products and services.
If you want to send video online to ten people today, your computer sends out ten separate copies, each of which travels over the Internet as separate items. The result: a clogged network. But using next-generation technology, audio and video transmissions will hog less space. How? Through multicasting, a combination of new hardware and software that allows one video stream to go out from your computer, then split into ten individual copies as the video nears each destination on the network. (While a limited version of multicasting has been used in the commercial world, it isn’t scalable.)
“It makes more efficient use of the network,” Wolff says. “If you think in terms of millions of people using this, then clearly the impact is enormous.” It becomes a lot easier to send and receive high-quality video, for instance, so videoconferencing may finally catch on with the masses.
Together, these research breakthroughs could make using the Internet a much less frustrating ordeal for the ever-growing pool of surfers. “Internet traffic as a whole is still increasing exponentially,” Cook says. “As an industry, we don’t know how to manage the massive data streams that are going to be arriving quickly. We need giant test beds to give us an approximation of what we would like to do in the real world. This will help us get ready for what is coming in e-commerce.”
Technological change will lead to more basic shifts in how companies operate. The Internet’s growing importance “absolutely changes business models,” says GartnerGroup’s Paulak. “The more interaction a company can have with its customers and suppliers,” he adds, “the more it can do everything from lower the cost of delivery to increase profitability by going directly from the manufacturer to the customer.”
The Internet has already brought such big-picture strategic issues to light, of course, so it’s a question of degree. But the next generation of technology will put a much greater degree of pressure on companies to change. Internet2 “raises customer service to a whole new level of competency required,” Wolff says. “It will not just be taking complaints online; it’s customer service in its fullest sense. The Internet facilitates the whole transaction, from start to finish.”
“We’ll see capabilities that transform the services delivered over the Internet, especially real-time collaboration and interaction,” Van Houweling says. Picture a shopper using 3-D imaging technology to rotate a photo and see how a pair of pants looks not just from the front but from the back as well. Or another who sees a nice sofa but doesn’t like the slipcover, so she changes the fabric in the picture from stripes to chintz. Or a consumer who dons a special glove connected to his PC that gives him the sensation of feeling a sweater’s fabric.
“Users will have rich interactions with vendors, and be able to do things like online design,” Wolff predicts. “Say you want to buy a chair. You will go online to a vendor who will work with you in designing your new chair; you will be able to sit in your living room and sketch what you would like. The two-way aspect has not been emphasized enough: The Internet will become much more interactive, and companies have to be prepared for that.”
Then there are the more far-out possibilities. Imagine people directing customized coverage of sporting events, watching games from their own preferred point of view. Or consumers entering virtual reality caves to view holographic images, à la Star Trek, that take them on a virtual vacation to Europe.
Alluring as that may be, the worldwide network infrastructure needs to be upgraded before such media-rich shopping and virtual sporting events become possible. It may take a few years before most of the U.S. Internet community has access to such service. And it will take an extra two to four years for other industrialized nations to get there.
But if this all sounds farfetched, dismiss it at your peril. “This is not CB radio. It is here to stay,” Patrick says. “This is the sort of thing that comes along every 100 years and changes the world.”
How quickly Internet2’s technology becomes commonplace depends partly on whether makers of high-tech products and Internet service providers are convinced that it is profitable, Gartner’s Paulak says. Multicasting could be used commercially in about a year. And there are some variations of QoS that are rolling out this year.
The problem, says Paulak, is the lack of a standard way of delivering it. A unified standard used by all major ISPs is two years away, at least. But it also depends on how fast consumers upgrade their own equipment. Will they be willing to replace their analog modems with digital modems? “Internet2 is only one piece of the overall picture,” Paulak says.
Corporate America had better start preparing for the soon-to-be spiffier Internet now, Cook says. “American business is going through a dramatic reformation. Not only is the technology changing, but basic business models are changing. What’s important in this new world is the fact that fast beats slow, not that big beats small. That is a fundamental change.”
Patrick offers three pieces of advice on how companies can prepare. First, gain an in-depth understanding of what your customers, suppliers, partners, and other constituencies want. “Expectations will be very high, because people know what is possible,” he says. “Then think outside-in: Think big, but start simple and grow fast.”
Second, Patrick advises companies to lay out an architecture that ensures that everything will work together in an open networked world. And third, start planning for rich audio and video content. “They will become expected,” he says. “When a person says ‘Help,’ he or she will expect to see a person, in full screen view, saying, ‘Hi, how can I help?’”
Says Patrick: “We have seen 1%, 2%, maybe 3% of what we are going to see on the Internet. We are at the very beginning of this. People may think that what’s happened is amazing, but that is nothing compared to what is coming. If companies think about it in that way, they’d better get going.”
The Bottom Line From GartnerGroup
Internet2 is a test bed that is doling out improvements over time, but it will not change the world overnight. So companies must formulate both near-term tactical and longer-range strategic plans. In the short-term, companies should test current proprietary approaches to delivering higher-quality service to preferred customers. Long-term, companies should plan for high-speed connections to all their customers and suppliers, and migrate their applications so that anything they do face-to-face can also be done online.
Throughout this entire process, however, companies must not lose sight of who their customers are. Internet2 may bring great benefit to the academic and business communities, but many consumers will see no benefit for a number of years to come. Therefore, when planning an online strategy, companies must take care to offer choices that will satisfy both the Internet2 haves and have nots.