Communication has always been a part of our lives. So far, only two forms of communications were possible: a one-to-one conversation or a one-to-many broadcast. What the Internet is doing is enabling many-to-many communications for perhaps the first time in human history. This ability to conference together people in geographically different parts of the world, allowing them to share ideas, collaborate or just chat simultaneously is changing conversation, and may just be the most powerful e-business enabler.
Right from paintings in cave walls to print, radio and television, information has been delivered in a broadcast capability to a mass market audience. The telephone enabled a person-to-person conversation in real-time and was the first real distance bridge. Then, with the Internet, along came email. It was suddenly possible to have near real-time conversations with many different people. It is little wonder that for a society as communicative as ours email has emerged as the killer app on the Internet.
The many-to-many conferencing traces its Net history to the Usenet newsgroups. People could post queries, and strangers would write back. For many, it was an excellent way to get solutions to problems – on the premise that someone somewhere else in the world had faced the same problem (and had solved it). Email lists also made it easier to send out messages to multiple people easily. Distance was no longer a barrier for collaboration among teams of people.
Internet chat rooms and instant messaging have become very popular. These same basic technologies can be used by businesses for communicating. The next step is sharing a common workspace with family, friends, team members or affinity groups. Napster gave a glimpse of what this can be achieved with its file-sharing software. What is needed is a mechanism to easily and seamlessly build virtual collaborative workspaces. “People work best, when they can self-organise, cooperating spontaneously in free-form ways”, according to Ray Ozzie, the creator of Lotus Notes and founder of Groove Networks.
Such a workspace would comprise of a whiteboard, email sharing, meeting rooms, scheduler, file-sharing. This needs to be combined with the sharing of multimedia information – sharing of pictures, webcams for video conferencing, indexed audio files for having minutes of meetings which go beyond text. The technologies and networks for putting it all together now exist. Examples of such groupware technologies are Lotus Notes and the recently launched Groove.
It takes years and many different business models to fail before the right one emerges. David Wessel, writing in the Wall Street Journal, compares the emergence of the radio to the Internet:
Applications of the technology evolved in a way unanticipated by the inventors. It took years for a viable business model to emerge. And the model that emerged wasn’t the immediately obvious one. Radio began as a way for one person to communicate with another. Radio Corporation of America, formed in 1919, charged a fee to sender or recipient, and prospered by undercutting the price of telegrams.
Ads were tough to sell — and controversial. In the 1920s, Herbert Hoover, then secretary of commerce, said it was “inconceivable that we should allow so great a possibility for service to be drowned in advertising chatter.” Advertising took off only after the creation of national radio networks.
The technology is new. The pattern is not. The 1922 radio hype was followed by a shakeout. Of the 48 stations [in the US] that were first in their states, 27 were out of business by 1924. Only then did a new business model emerge.
The Net is still in its infancy, and throwing up new business models and creating new changes all the time. One such change is definitely happening in the way communications between people is taking place.