On Beyond the Web

In a few years, new Net applications and devices may make it superfluous

Don't get too stuck on the Web. Sure, it has attracted billions of dollars in investment, dragged countless consumers and corporations online, and generated billions in sales. But it would be a big mistake to assume that viewing pages and clicking on buy buttons will continue to dominate how we use the vast resources of the Net. After all, how many people today remember

Gopher, the text-based precursor to the Web? Once the Mosaic browser hit the Net, the Web quickly subsumed this and other once-dominant Net technologies. Now, a spate of new developments seems certain to sweep away the Web--or at least make it far less important than it is today.

Why? Because the Web is nothing more than a software layer on top of the Net, a way of presenting information stored in computer databases. The Net, that vast collection of computers and phone lines that holds and delivers data, isn't going anywhere. But software can change fast. So now, people are slapping onto the Net all kinds of useful new software for which the Web is utterly superfluous.

Think about it: You don't go to a Web page to send an instant message. You don't need a Web browser to play streaming audio and video. For wireless applications, starved for bandwidth and screen space, the Web is a clumsy joke. Nor is the Web of much use to new devices, from Handspring Inc.'s Visor handheld to MP3 players such as the Rio. Industrial sensors and smart appliances are starting to be programmed to communicate directly over the Net--and they don't need to look at Web pages.

Afterthought. Most of all, the Web is a mere afterthought for the biggest Net development since the Web itself: so-called peer-to-peer applications such as the music-sharing service of Napster Inc. They allow personal computers and other devices to communicate directly with each other, without going through central computers such as Web servers. In contrast to just a few years ago, these devices--PCs, handhelds, even game machines--now have lots of excess processing power and storage capacity. That power lets them act not just as passive receptacles for data but also as generators and traders of valuable content.

No wonder record company executives are freaking out. But it doesn't matter that their legal challenges may well doom Napster. That's just one of a dizzying array of new applications. For instance, the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence project is tapping the idle power of thousands of PCs to crunch data from the cosmos. Groove Networks Inc., on the other hand, is devising ways to let corporate groups rapidly marshal PC resources to get work done, without having to set up and route everything through central Web servers, as they must today.

George Colony, CEO of market watcher Forrester Research Inc., predicts what he calls the X Internet will emerge within the next two or three years, supplanting the Web. He envisions people exchanging programs that automatically launch and do useful work as easily as they trade e-mail, Web pages, and MP3 files today. For instance, instead of e-mailing customers with suggested investments, Fidelity Investment could send a program that lets customers plug the suggestions into their portfolio to calculate how well it fits their financial goals.

When this type of application takes hold, today's already-struggling Web leaders, from Yahoo! Inc. (YHOO ) to Amazon.com Inc. (AMZN ), will quickly have to adapt their Web business models or face extinction. So will traditional companies that have embraced the Web, from General Electric Co. (GE ) to Wal-Mart Stores Inc. (WMT ) "We've been sitting around a fire in loincloths gnawing on bones," says Colony. "We'll look back at the Web as the sharp, pointed stick of the Internet." Beyond the Web, the Internet will remain a wellspring for opportunity--and danger--for a long time to come.

By Robert D. Hof, rob_hof@ebiz.businessweek.com

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