The incredible and explosive growth of connectivity — and therefore, of Access — has been completely underestimated in terms of its impact on society, marketplaces, and even the strength of nations. It’s something that history will look back on with an incredible amount of clarity — the complete sea change that took place in the final days of the last millennium and in the beginning of this one.
The Web browser — and the connections that occurred by allowing people to visit places on the Internet — will be seen in much the same light we look at the light bulb and the electric motor today, as the two things which propagated the electrical grid and industrialization, but they were really just the beginning.
The first generation of web applications — the ability to go somewhere and browse something — is being replaced with a new generation that is about being able to connect and provide services and build communities, the last of which is the result of the amazing work being done with social networks.
Social Networking Models for Business?
But the greatest opportunities lie in socially networking corporations together — horizontally, across business processes, which don’t necessarily live within your four walls anymore. At FedEx, we already have literally millions of customers so integrated with us that they never have to leave their enterprise systems or their suite of applications in order to fulfill orders or track packages, because we offer them services they incorporated into the heart of their business processes. Some of our customers never even have to change screens to use it.
With the visibility that companies now have into their supply chains and the velocity of business itself, the expectations are huge on the part of business and customers that you can quickly assemble the business processes you need to make something happen. And a lot of times, that can involve four, five, or six companies, because you can now create the connections and close the loop for an entire business process, and you can do it very rapidly. It’s almost easier to integrate businesses horizontally, across our connected world, than it is within your own company. You can build applications on the Internet very rapidly that will move things from Point A to Point B, and from there on to Points C and D.
Finding Real-World Models in the Virtual World
How will businesses and consumers take advantage of this integration, for example, in online shopping? It may happen in something like Second Life, a virtual community where you take on identities that are part fantasy but also real enough that your activities might show up in your first life, like shopping and booking hotels. Right now, you might buy a pair of virtual shoes for your character in Second Life — and you pay for them with real money. Second Life has enough momentum to make us wonder: What if this identity I’ve built could spill over into my daily life and get things done for me?
The speed with which these social networks allow companies to implement ideas like these may be the key to unencumbering ourselves from all the paradigms we’ve gotten stuck in — such as the fact at I need to use your shopping cart when I visit your online store. In Second Life, I could carry not just a shopping cart, but an entire identity around with me, and no doubt banks might be very interested in granting my second self the ability to shop anywhere within that world.
Of course, it probably won’t happen the way we expect it to, but it will be the unforeseen effect of these connections that makes it possible.
Moving Beyond “Bricks and Mortar” Thinking
Almost without thinking about it, developers borrowed the original idea of online commerce from the brick-and-mortar world. For all intents and purposes, that simply paved the cow path. All of the transactions that take place today could have happened inside of stores. Think about it for a second; you go to a place, you do business inside that place, and then you pay on the way out. I believe that this paradigm has begun to dissolve. It’s part of a larger shift in the Internet, which is evolving from being predominantly about destinations to being about connections.