In 1983 I arranged the license that introduced Compuserve into Japan. At the time Compuserve dominated online services in the U.S. and AOL was little more than a dream. In 1998 AOL, the then market leader in online services, bought Compuserve (excluding the physical network). AOL had crushed Compuserve by changing the business model for online services. By 2005 AOL was a "has been" replaced by a new wave of online service providers that better grasped the customer need and the business model to fulfill the need. I believe we are on the verge of another major shift in online services, a shift so profund that some of today's market leaders will go in the scrap heap with Compuserve and AOL. I can not guage whether these changes are three or ten years away, but they are coming. This is what I see.
1. No more PCs. I think that all Internet communications and work will be done on a handheld wireless device. The device will continue to function as a cell phone, but when you sit down at your desk you will "plug" it into a keyboard and monitor. This wireless device will have 4-8 GB of ram and a sizeable hard drive but all your content and most applications will be stored on the Web. Some RIA (rich Internet applications) will be resident on the device but the majority of applications will be something similar to Google Docs on Steroids. When people say that Apple's iPhone is going to fill the netbook spot in the product line, I think they see a future similar to me. Google's launch of Android might be another example of similar thinking. Google is not interested to be in the phone business. They want to be at the forefront of shaping wireless access to the web and make sure you use Google services.
2. Storage, Storage, Storage. If all your content and apps are stored on the web, then obviously control of the storage business is going to be a real knockdown fight. The good news is that it will be priced at marginal cost, but everybody will pay for storage. Here's how I think it will work. You create an online document (photo, video clip, music, etc.) in a Google Docs, Microsoft Office or newbee.com type app, then you decide to save it as a shared, public or group document, some sort of semantic technology creates tags so you and Google can more easily find it in your 500 GB of online storage and then some sort of FriendFeed type application disseminates the document where you want it to go. All of this functionality will be provided by the online storage company or a sharing application that is built into the feed reader you will be using.
3. RSS, RSS and Search. I think that most of the information we receive will come from RSS feeds or a similar technology because RSS is just so much more convenient than web browsers or any other technology from 1990. Therefore, web browsers as we know them will largely be replaced by feed readers. Think of NewsGator on steroids. NewsGator already provides a superb feed reader, a good web browser and limited functionality to share (by email, on Delicious and re-blogging) and archive posts. Expand the functionality of NewsGator for more options of what to do to the post (excerpt, highlight, archive with tags, etc.) and the feed reader becomes your principal information manager. Search will survive, but it will need to be a lot more sophisticated given the volume of content to index that I expect to be stored on the web.
To help clarify what I am saying, let me describe some of the technologies and companies that I see disappearing.
1. Facebook. Yes--I said Facebook. If you breakdown the functionality of Facebook, it could be replaced by a combination of Twitter, Flickr, You Tube and an RSS feed. Basically, what Facebook offers is convenience to form a network. If your online storage company provides the technology to send an RSS feed of your shared "documents" to everybody or any subset you choose, why do I need Facebook. Convenience is not a sustainable advantage and Facebook may need to change to survive.
2. e-mail. I think that a service like Twitter will replace email. A short url gives you all the attachment functionality you need (when all your documents are stored on the web).The Twitter approach eliminates all the hassles of account login and grandma is just another feed in the feedreader. Somebody will develop the technology to send a tweet to a group, if its not already out there.
3. Desktop Applications. This technology will be replaced by an online or RIA version of Microsoft Office or the 20 wannabees. If Microsoft switched to an advertising model or offered the best storage services (see Storage, Storage above), they will maintain there dominant position. If I were Microsoft, I would be concerned if Amazon bought Zoho. Office document generation may be the online app that determines where everybody stores all their content.
4. Widgets. I can not decide if widgets are going to survive. If the feedreader starts to look like Tweet Deck, where you pick and choose everything that is on the screen, then widgets disappear. If somebody wants even more choices than the limitations of screen real estate in Tweet Deck, then widgets will survive. The other possibility is you have a column in the feedreader where you can insert some widgets or the Mac feature where you bring up a desktop of widgets. I love widgets but they may be a temporary technology.
The big question in my view of the future is what will be the revenue models for these services. I think we are going to start paying for apps that are free today. Probably nominal amounts, $1 per month(multiplied by 50 million users), to avoid the versions with advertising embedded. I think we will also see a lot more professional versions with expanded functionality that people pay for.
If you are looking for an example of who sees the world the way I do, I think the best example may be FriendFeed. It will be interesting to look back in 5 years and see how close I came.
Note: this post was inspired by a customer survey from NewsGator where they asked what new features would I like to see in their product. My response was shorter than this post :)