"In the 21st century, the computing world will depend on tools that are based upon open standards, are easy to use and work across multiple platforms."
Mr Derek Burney, executive vice president of engineering at Corel (i.e., the company that built CorelDraw 9). (1)
Who will survive?
When faced with enormous numbers of people populating cyberspace, it is clear the future for this humble piece of technology is looking a little more than just a tad rosy.
Internet numbers continue to grow exponentially. Much of the changes we will see in the coming years will occur mainly in the education, communication (especially advertising and the telephone industry) and business sectors. And the ones who will flourish in the new world order will be:
- those who own the telephone lines over which Internet information travels;
- those who can provide cheap long-distance telephone calls through VoIP;
- those who can provide the software for running the Internet (such as browsers, instant messaging systems and so on);
- those that can provide a wide-range of quality, convenient, low-cost and customised education and other information-based services for the masses in an interesting way. By interesting, we mean something which is useful, and something that has a style of communication and a selection of knowledge that is essentially no-nonsense, straight to the core of what people need, humorous and easy-to-remember, read and apply in daily life;
- those who can turn software applications into web-based tools such as Google's own office software running on its server or FileMaker Server running your database software applications on your own server so as to improve collaboration between many users while controlling licensing issues online; and
- those that can provide a solid e-supply-chain combined with quality, low-cost, unique and easy to distribute products that people will find useful and convenient.
What will be achieved from all these changes?
Eventually, what the Internet technocrats and business professionals of the 21st century will hope to achieve from the changes is in the development of a two-way "interactive" dialogue between the consumer (or students) and the online companies (or online educational provider) whereby the consumer (or student) where people can:
- play free games and listen to free music and video in order to learn more about certain products/services/knowledge and then hopefully pay for other instant entertainment such as talking/viewing anyone in the world or purchasing other tools;
- assemble on one page the essential information extracted in a customised way from a long list of search engine results (the next stage beyond having a good search engine).
- download hopefully free or very low-cost digital movies or interactive books, magazines for viewing on a home computer, digital television or any non-PC device (e.g. Internet-ready mobile phones).
- control software licensing to users by having software web-enabled and getting people to use them online.
- collaborate with more people anywhere in the world to help share ideas and create new stuff to sell or give to others.
In essence, it's all about sharing information to achieve various goals of the people and so hopefully see humanity progress to some higher level of achievement and understanding about our purpose and why we and the universe exists.
It is believed that by selling, protecting, observing and exchanging ideas, experiences and other digital products with anyone in the world, we will be more entertained, knowledgeable, richer, safer and happier than we have ever been before thanks to the internet.
It is now known that Microsoft Corporation has signed a deal with Samsung to provide consumers with a new range of Internet-ready mobile phones running Microsoft Mobile Explorer sometime during the 2001-2002 financial year.
But just make sure the phones don't have a video camera built into them or you could find yourself caught out in all sorts of embarressing positions!
Too late! The video mobile phones are out and now people are wanting to take pictures of things we would rather not know about!
What are we doing to achieve this goal?
For this grand plan of getting everyone connected to the Internet and doing the right thing by governments and businesses to become a reality, hardware manufacturers must develop new "Internet-ready" appliances, software and ways of achieving the art of buying things instead of through the traditional bricks and mortar approach.
To attract people to the internet, major software companies such as Adobe Systems, Inc and Microsoft Corporation have developed powerful tools for developing attractive web pages that are both engaging and interesting and will entice people to do something (usually to buy). This means a greater use of interactivity and 3D graphics in the information presented online. As Bert Marable discovered:
"Engaging web sites must do more than simply organise content - they must transform it into a compelling and lively experience.
...Unlike traditional, noninteractive stories found in books, television, and film, interactive stories engage visitors as active participants by giving them the chance to select their own paths through the content." (2)
And as an Adobe spokesperson once said to media representatives after Adobe Systems Inc agreed to adopt the new 3D technology from MetaCreations called Metastream 3.0 into their own software product range:
"We recognise that 3D will play an important role in e-commerce activities over the Internet future." (3)
What will happen to the Internet?
While a few ethical online companies, research organisations and individuals are trying to provide the cyberspace audience with a diverse range of information, the impact of big businesses on the Internet is starting to make its mark.
Already, corporate behemoths such as Telstra (with its online white and yellow pages), AOL Time Warner (with its music and video entertainment pages) and Microsoft (with its range of software, computer and general educational information pages) have controlled a large proportion of the cyberspace audience.
Part of the problem for this new-look homogenised online world being presented by big businesses is that many people are still having to pay for Internet access and therefore don't want to spend too much time finding information in more obscure and lesser-known web sites. Although it is true that some people may be voting with their feet and choosing the web sites of big businesses over all others for convenience, many other people are subtlely being forced to visit these few big web sites for their information because of costs and the hype that everything they need and want will be available there.
The other problem is the good old "profit" factor of big businesses. Big businesses need to make and retain huge profits, so much so that it has become the prime motive behind the businesses own massive domination of the Internet. Rarely, if ever, do they provide assistance to smaller web sites (unless it will help to boost their own profits) and so provide potentially new and original information to the people.
A classic example of this behaviour is AOL Time Warner in the US. Ever since the controversial merger between ISP America Online and media group Time Warner went ahead, it has been accused for some time now of trying to be the Internet for over 30 million users in the US by supplying its own browser (from American Online) and own Internet content (from Time Warner). And with content like Warner Music, Time and Who Weekly magazines, and CNN, it is no wonder 30 million-plus users think they can't go wrong because of the choices being given to them by this big company. (4)
This huge marketing power of attracting a large number of people to the web sites of big businesses is clearly a form of aggressive "globalisation" on the Internet for the sake of high profits. We can see where this attitude comes from when we hear statements like the following made by AOL Australia's content and programming director, Mr Tony Sarno:
"If I'm taking Who Weekly content, I'm making sure I'm driving subscriptions to that magazine. Similarly, if I get exclusive music downloads from Warner Music, I'm also pushing to sell Warner Music records.
The more marketing spend you have the more chance you have of winning. If you have marketing power it's the same as any other company out there in the real world...
I think there's a real mythology built up around the kids in the bedroom. I don't have a problem if some of these people have gone out of business because quite frankly what they were delivering was crap and it militated against the user experience. I want users to see the Net as a fantastic experience and to do that...you need to do some things that are quite boring such as provide customer service and good billing systems.
The future is about delivering very sophisticated applications. I don't think it's about delivering a teenager's take on the world kind of thing. It doesn't work that way." (5)
Is it right or wrong for big businesses to globalise the Internet? Well, the principle of globalisation in itself is not inherently wrong if it is based on noble and social reasons of helping everyone survive at the lowest cost possible through the worldwide availability of certain needy and high quality products and services. However, if the "globalisation" process is purely to make profit and helping people is just a secondary issue combined with the use anti-competitive behaviour in an attempt to maintain shear market domination, then it can be a dangerous thing.
And what's the justification for this "globalisation" for profit idea of big businesses? In the words of Sarno:
"What the facts [ie. the number of users to AOL Time Warner's web site] show is that people are voting with their feet. They are going there [ie. AOL Time Warner]no-one is forcing them. These are value propositions that are available to them and they are choosing the ones they want to go to." (6)
Well, let's not blame AOL Time Warner entirely. Microsoft and Apple Inc does the same thing as well. A classic Microsoft example is the new Windows XP introducing a new feature called "Smart Tags". This feature would allow Microsoft to insert links from any part of a Web page to a site selected by Microsoft. In the beta version of this operating system, the feature was continuously turned on. So naturally when people found out, it provoked a storm of protests. Now the final version of Windows XP has the option to turn it on if you want it.
Clearly, all of this is telling us that there has to be balance in these matters. Life is not about trying to be God by monopolising the Internet for our own simplistic "profit" aims. There are other people who must survive and contribute in their own way too.
And fortunately there are a few who do understand this point, such as the people at Yahoo.com. While many big businesses would like to believe in the "Here is what we've got, come and get it" approach, Yahoo takes on a different attitude of "This is what's available and you decide what you want". As Yahoo's boss Tony Faure said:
"We want to help people get the most out of the Web. We don't want to be the Web. We don't see a future where every service you access online and every piece of content you look at and everything you buy is Yahoo's. We believe people really do value the ability to choose." (7)
This healthier and slightly more balanced approach to the Internet is reinforced by Senior Analyst at Jupiter Media Metrix (JMM) Andrew Sargeant:
"The natural tendency for businesses is to try to control areas of the Web and achieve competitive advantage in the process, but ultimately the Web is such a free medium and it's so easy for people to publish stuff that there will always be a diversity that is beyond the control of the major players.
When you talk about someone controlling the Web that implies others are unable to be free. But I think it will always be possible for people to do their own thing. No-one is going to exercise absolute control." (8)
AOL Time Warner appears to have bitten off more than it can chew after making its merger. The company has sold off US$1 billion of non-essential assets to help reduce its massive debt load. Of concern to the company is the CD- and DVD-making units of Warner Music Group. Why? With people moving to MP3 technology and other companies looking towards delivering music online without CDs and DVDs, this seems to be a logical thing to do.
Content vs Presentation
Will content be king in the future for the Internet? Or will presentation dominate the world thanks to online media giants like CNN and News Corp.?
There is a bit of debate as to whether good content and no presentation is better than no content and good presentation. For most online businesses communicating with customers, the emphasis is more on content, especially content that is relevant to people's needs. As co-founder and Executive Director of Becomemedia, Tim Trumper said:
"Content is king, but content in context is really what the game's all about." (9)
And in another quote from Trumper:
"The broad view is that content is going to be increasingly important. Some of the early broadband research coming out of Europe is showing that the paradox of the Internet is that, once people have a great connection, they tend to look at fewer sites, not more. If people are focussing on their favourite sites then those places need to have the best content or they'll lose." (10)
However, the education market has entered the Internet in a big way and have emphasised good presentation as vital for effective learning. So naturally there will be some who will argue presentation is important.
The truth is, the future for the Internet will require a balance between good content and good presentation. Clearly if people are looking for advice or need to know why one product is better than another, content is more important. But if people are to remember what they have read for learning, good presentation is important.
While some web sites may concentrate on one aspect or the other, the Internet will always be big enough to bring balance to this issue.
So how long will the Internet continue to follow this trend? Will the numbers of people on the Internet continue to breed like virtual rabbits and so forever support the technology and probably all the big businesses who want to supply a narrow range of highly popular information in great quantities?
Or will the Internet bubble simply taper off or even burst one day given the serious issues now being raised by IT experts and the general public like the privacy issue for those using the technology?
And what about the limited time and high costs of accessing the Internet and finding quality information? Can people afford the time and money to be on the Internet?
Another growing issue of concern is in regards to lost productivity at work. There is a trend as we speak of government departments and a growing number of businesses in the private industry moving away from the Internet, or at least putting up firewalls to stop people from accessing many web sites. Why? Because of lost productivity by employees with access to the Internet unless it is directly relevant to the job (e.g. web page designing, Internet advertising and so on).
This is not to say that the Internet is not a worthwhile tool for business. It is only because employees tend to get easily distracted by what's on offer which is causing the "economic rationalism" bug to bite hard on some employers and so stop people from exploring new ideas or relaxing while at work.
A similar problem is also developing in the email department. According to recent research from The User Group, the average worker now spends about three hours each day processing and dealing with junk emails, compared to only 90 minutes two years ago. Over two million users had participated in the latest survey. (11)
Causes of email overload. Source: PCPlus: Users Bogged Down with E-Mail. September 2000, p.16.
Another survey has also confirmed that processing email has taken over telephone calls as the most stressful and time-consuming part of doing a job. The number of emails to process throughout the world has already reached 1000 million, and by 2005 it is expected to worsen to around 35,000 million based on current growth estimates.
Even with email filtering software, employees in America were found to spend 1 hour and 47 minutes on email every day on average. But 31 per cent of the 1,100 US employers participating in the survey conducted by the American Management Association in 2003 claiming their employees spent more than 2 hours of email work per day.
In fact, a number of people have commented on how much time is being spent on the Internet and email because of the shear quantity of information. For example, several talented American writers at Forbes magazine have supported this view in their essays as compiled in The Examined Life in the Digital Age.
Now people like Charles Mann have devised a law to help people cope with the electronic information overload: the more readily a piece of information can be located on the Internet, the less one can be sure of its accuracy. And with this law, one can start to appreciate the view from Gore Vidal, a writer at Forbes, when he said that the Internet overload is diminishing our capacity to think because of how the technology is giving us the illusion that we know a lot.
Employers have thought long and hard about the email problem and have decided the best way to reduce the millions of emails is to sack employees for inappropriate use of the technology. So if you are found sending at work an innocent little personal email to your parents (even during an official morning, afternoon or lunch break) declaring "Yes Dad! I'm still alive in this part of the world", it could be enough to get you sacked! Nice one!
It is no wonder more and more employees are turning to running their own business instead of working for someone else.
So what's wrong with education? And how could the odd personal email sent or received by employees result in a lowering in workplace productivity? We have to assume inappropriate use of emails refer to employees sending spam for long hours or spending more than 30 seconds looking at a naked woman or man without any return for the effort to the workplace.
Also the argument that more than 50 per cent of all Internet and email information downloaded by employees is non-work related and hence is a good reason to sack employees is not acceptable. Because many useful Internet sites for the workplace will often come with extra header, footer and menu information, advertisements from sponsors, and the actual information may not be tailored-made to suit the exact purpose for a given workplace. Employees still need to download and sort through the information in order to find the real gem needed by the workplace.
We hope employers are not so draconian in their thinking to let this corporate behaviour go rampant.
25 October 2003
The state of New South Wales in Australia is soon to introduce privacy legislation to protect employees from the prying eyes of employers. Employees who are being secretly monitored by their employers using a computer will need to be told about it and why. And if the employers suspect possible illegal activity or serious misconduct, a court order must be obtained before spying can commence. Because of this latest legislation, some employers are considering a backlash against the laws by withdrawing email and Internet access for employees altogether.
The reason for the backlash? Apparently employers don't trust anyone to protect their intellectual property and their equipment from misuse. But the argument of employees in a number of recent court cases has shown this is not true. For a start, what constitutes the misuse of company computers? If, as some employers have tried to argue, storing dirty jokes in a file or writing a letter to mum on a company computer is considered a misuse of equipment, employees have managed to successfully argue in the courts how the existence of such a personal file or other activity has not resulted in a downturn in their performance to the company. Furthermore, privacy legislation is now requiring employers to recognise that employees have a personal life as well as a business life.
As the secretary of the Labor Council Mr John Robertson said:
"There should be nothing stopping people from doing that [ie. personal use] as long as it isn't impacting on their performance at work." (12)
The other concern that employers have with the new laws is the cost and complexity in writing policy to handle all possible contingencies and one that would be legally enforceable when it comes to explaining how company computers can be used and the way workers will be monitored. However NSW Chamber of Commerce chief executive Ms Margy Osmond has conducted a survey on Australian businesses and have found the personal use of emails was not the problem. Rather it is the large number of spam emails which is taking up far more time than anything else according to a US report published by Pew Internet and American Life Project.
Despite these arguments, employers are still considering the option of banning email and Internet access altogether to solve the problem.
24 April 2004
A Germany-based IT specialist (noted for the country's high percentage of people with strong L-brain skills) in content security named Olaf Jacobi has come out in support of employers sacking employees or other draconian measures as the only means of controlling allegedly inappropriate use of the Internet and email. Based on an analysis of Internet content in the workplace (presumably this includes people working from home using their own computers), Jacobi claims 50 per cent of Internet content constitutes pornography (both legal and the illegal stuff such as child pornography), followed by entertainment sites, dating sites, and auction and trading sites.
Jacobi sees this as a problem for companies when he states that nearly 70 percent of all traffic to pornography sites occur between the hours of 9am and 5pm Monday and Friday. To lend weight to his claim, he cites as evidence several instances where employees were caught by police surfing child pornography sites from their work PC. Because of this information, Jacobi is automatically assuming every employee is probably accessing this material from a company computer or other workstation and for very long hours. If this is true, what about people working from home (or bored mothers at home accessing the Internet for excitement)? And is everyone really visiting child pornography sites or spending many hours on personal activity using company computers? Sounds a bit far fetched.
Another problem with Jacobi's claim is the view he takes that visiting entertainment, dating, and auction and trading sites are assumed to be inappropriate. What exactly does he mean by inappropriate? Surely it depends on the type of business and the duties required to be performed by an employee? For instance, if you are a newspaper reporter writing an article on the latest gossip in Hollywood, why not visit an entertainment site? Or if you are a web site designer, you need to visit a wide range of web sites for ideas on how to build and design a quality web site!
It is also not inappropriate in a democratic society for people to spend their lunch hour or morning/afternoon tea on accessing Internet and email for personal things like checking their own email account for messages (e.g. discovering new job prospects, making sure the family hasn't suffered a terrible accident etc), talking to friends (i.e. to improve social skills and have greater self-confidence with talking to a wide range of people), shopping (to help improve self-esteem and possibly gather extra tools to help with certain training requirements or getting the job done within the company in a more efficient and effective manner) or gathering information (i.e. improving productivity or becoming famous for solving a problem which could indirectly help make the company famous for employing the individual). It is all a question of how the managers of companies employing people view the personal lives of employees and whether they can recognise the fact that employees do have a personal life besides work.
If managers continually forced employees to ignore their personal life while working long hours, productivity will go down or the employees will go against the company in some secretive way.
It really comes down to the management style of the people running the companies which will determine the attitude of managers towards their employees and how employees ultimately behave in response to this attitude. For example, if the company is run by men (i.e. who think on the L-side of the brain most of the time because they feel resources are limited and people must work like robots for the entire working hours of the day), we wouldn't be surprised if these men expect their employees to work on one thing at a time and one-hundred per cent of their time on work-related matters and nothing else (a common situation in places like the Department of Defence). However, if women were running the company, there would be a greater recognition of the importance of people managing their own personal lives as well as dealing with their own work aims and if necessary a work computer (like a telephone) should be available for these purposes at the right times.
This is why you will see more and more companies providing a recreation room for employees to relax and socialise, a childcare centre for employees who have children to look after, a cafe or shop to buy healthy lunches (which in turn translates to a healthy mind and ultimately improved work productivity), and even a gymnasium for employees to get fit (to give that extra energy to do things while having the right positive attitude) and so on. Thank God managers are smart enough to have toilets in the companies when people need to deal with another level of personal needs. So why not give employees time to browse on the Internet during appropriate times (e.g. lunch, after work, before work, or during tea breaks)?
All these things are examples of how the more progressive "R-brain thinking" companies recognise the fact that employees need to deal with their personal life in order to optimise their work productivity. It is a bit like the multi-millionaire manager in Brazil who has decided to do away with fixed working hours during the day. The forward-thinking manager gave their employees the opportunity to work any hour of the day or night. If employees need to do things during the day, then that's fine. The employees can work during the night, on a weekend, or whenever. Or some employees will try to work 3 days of 14 hours work shift, sleep in the beds supplied by the company, and then the employees can enjoy the rest of the week doing something else of a personal nature.
It is just plain common sense.
Another issue raised by Jacobi designed to send the shivers down the spine of many managers is the question of cost. Because Jacobi has noticed the technology of the Internet and email is not being used one hundred per cent of the time for daily work, Jacobi assumes any non-work-related activity online (called cyberbludging) must be costing companies enormous amounts of money. But again this assumes every company is paying by the megabyte and the information online is not expected to benefit the company over the long-term. However there are Internet access plans having a fixed cost per month where people can download as much as they like without incurring extra costs to the company (it may be sometimes limited by speed). If companies are smart enough, online access should not have to cost them heavily and certainly not by the megabyte as it would seem.
Similarly, certain information online can help people to be more relaxed, happy and more creativity as required to problem-solve effectively in the business world.
From his perspective, Jacobi said:
"Only a tiny part of the Internet is relevant and useful, especially for organisations or for companies, and the majority is illegal, inappropriate and harmful.
The Internet has become one of the biggest tools in order to increase productivity in companies...but it is the largest productivity grabber as well because the majority of Internet content has nothing to do with daily work.
If you imagine what people are doing during working time if they have free access it's unbelievable." (13)
It is good to see Jacobi is trying to apply his creativity by imagining what people are probably doing during working time. The truth is, what we really need is actual observations to prove the claims. And those observations must not impede privacy laws. And anyway, does it really impinge on the productivity and performance of employees while they are in pursuit of trivial personal matters like visiting an entertainment site?
A more comprehensive study needs to be conducted in this field to determine the complete truth. We will end this so-called cyberbludging with a couple of statements. The first statement is from Keri Spooner, a senior lecturer in employment relations and human resource management at the University of Technology, Sydney, Australia. According to Spooner, she said:
"Successful organisations or those seeking success require motivated and intelligent staff. They do not require obedient slaves. Individuals faced with no freedom of action will soon move on.
Moreover, the law in advanced economies generally recognises the right of individuals to 'reasonable' communications with family and friends during working hours. In this respect, the internet is no different from the access to a newspaper or to a telephone during working hours." (14)
The second statement is from John Lenarcic, a lecturer in the School of Business Information Technology at RMIT University in Melbourne, Australia. As Lenarcic said:
"When faced with limitless knowledge, can we switch off our innate curiosity as thinking beings? In my opinion, putting blinkers on internet access in the workplace could stifle creativity.
A lot of companies pay big bucks to send employees on lateral-thinking courses and the like. These types of training courses foster subjunctive thinking that encourages divergent approaches to problem solving. The internet is an ocean of stimuli to incite creative thought in workers." (15)
Or perhaps the shear complexity of the technology may see the Internet eventually turn into something simpler like the videophone for wealthy telephone companies?
Nobody knows for sure. But if the technology is not properly simplified, standardised and sufficiently open and free for the public to use, or if the security issues are not properly addressed by those promoting the technology, the Internet could turn into another fad, or just another expensive toy for the rich to play with.
Whatever the future will bring for the Internet, it will certainly depend on everyone who uses it to turn it into something that will bring benefit for all of humanity, and not just for the few technically-minded or rich people around us.