This blog represents most of the newspaper columns (appearing in various Colorado Community Newspapers and Yourhub.com) written by me, James LaRue, during the time in which I was the director of the Douglas County Libraries in Douglas County, Colorado. (Some columns are missing, due to my own filing errors.) This blog covers the time period from April 11, 1990 to January 12, 2012.

Unless I say so, the views expressed here are mine and mine alone. They may be quoted elsewhere, so long as you give attribution. The dates are (at least according my records) the dates of publication in one of the above print newspapers.

The blog archive (web view) is in chronological order. The display of entries, below, seems to be in reverse order, new to old.

All of the mistakes are of course my own responsibility.

Wednesday, July 16, 1997

July 16, 1997 - the technology curve

(Lately, I've talked to a lot of business people who came to the library to try to figure out how to position themselves to take advantage of the Internet. This column takes some of what I've learned about what I call the "arc of technology," and refocuses it to the small business person.)

Like many businesses, you scrambled to get on the World Wide Web. You signed up with an Internet Service Provider. You either taught yourself HTML (Hyper-Text Markup Language) or paid somebody else to build a web page for you. You downloaded all kinds of Internet utilities: editors, image converters, file transfer programs, etc.

And when you were all done, you looked around and asked yourself: "When do I start making money?"

You're not alone. Like most of the people now on the World Wide Web, you're on the wrong side of the technology curve.

Picture a bell curve. The vertical axis is money--your money. The horizontal access is time. All technology follows this curve. At the early part of the cycle (the uphill part of the curve), businesses spend money. At the top, they start to break even. On the downhill slope, the technology finally becomes profitable.

This model works for almost any new technology.

Consider the automobile. At first, there was a lot of experimentation. Nobody quite knew what cars would be used for: family outings? Farm work? Some automobiles were steered by reins, as if automobiles were horses. Others used sticks, like the rudders on boats. And how to stop a car? Hand brakes?

This lack of standardization, of an agreed upon ÒinterfaceÓ for controlling the new vehicle, made it hard to make money. Who knew just what kind of technology was going to catch on? Gearing up for production was risky.

Add to this another factor: there were no paved roads!

Finally, largely through the work of Henry Ford, things began to settle down. You would use a steering wheel. The accelerator would be on the floor, pressed by your right foot. The brake would be another foot pedal, on the far left.

At about this time, some of the great road building projects began: a paved strip in Kansas City. Scenic drives. Two lane roads.

Standardized design and sufficient infrastructure: it's the top of the technology curve. For the automobile, only then did the business possibilities open up: everything from race cars to tractors to drive-ins to suburban malls.

Right now, being on the web is the same kind of risky business as non-standard automobiles. Is the World Wide Web an educational medium, useful primarily for research? Or it is a communication medium, an environment for group discussion and cooperative activity?

Or is the Web an advertising medium?--a sort of public bulletin board for catchy page layouts? Or is it a commercial medium, a place where customers build products out of your inventory, place orders and track shipments? I would argue that right now, the only people who ARE making money on the web are the people selling web design services, not the people buying them.

If history is any guide, at least three things have to happen before all that comes clear. First, the interface of the Web needs to stabilize. Right now, the interface battle is between Microsoft and Netscape, although many of the basics of Web-surfing have already been resolved.

Second, the infrastructure--the paved roads of the Information Highway--need to be built. That's happening pretty fast, too.

Third, and most important, there needs to be a way to ensure secure business transactions: a way to know that the order came from a real person, and that this real person's money actually makes it to your business's bank account. Various encryption schemes--software that sets up a conversation that only two people can decode (the seller and the buyer) are just about set, too.

My advice? Now's the time to be looking at your internal databases (of products and services), and getting them ready to talk to the web. The real potential of the Internet as a business medium is not advertising, but rather the manipulation of inventory to design customized products, and to more closely direct and monitor their delivery. For instance, the customer might select paper stock and fonts for a big print job, or mix and match options for a new automobile.

In short, though we're still this side of technology curve, the bubble is just ahead of us. It will pay to get ready for it.

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