The Web Smart 50

The Net is wriggling into the nooks and crannies of businesses across the world. Here, a glimpse at the future


Apple Computer (AAPL ) is wrapping Hollywood studios in a big iTunes hug. Blogging mobs are rampaging across the Web. Google (GOOG ) seems to be taking over the world -- and staking a claim to outer space, too. From news headlines these days, it's easy to conclude that these big names have a corner on Internet innovation. Check that notion at the door.

The Web is wriggling into the nooks and crannies of businesses across the globe, from an Italian electricity giant to an onion farm in Oregon. Some companies are culling data they had never encountered before and sharing the information with customers via blogs or wireless hookups. Others are turning customers into their eyes and ears in the marketplace.

Sure, the technology is zippy. But this year's WebSmart 50 shows that the bigger story, in many cases, is how it redefines age-old relationships. Suppliers are becoming partners, developers are suddenly knee-deep in customer relations, and employees who used to be the last to find out news are publishing it themselves. Such changes are having a far greater impact on companies than anything Google or Apple has cooked up.

Plenty of these projects are about nuts-and-bolts management. But they aren't limited to companies. Schools, public bus systems, even New York City's government are using the Web to reshape operations. Kaiser Permanente's digitization of patient records helped it uncover problems with Vioxx a year before the drug's recall. The American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals revamped its site on a dime after Hurricane Katrina so it could recruit volunteers for the first time in its 130-year history.

Funny thing: These same Web technologies play a different role in many stories. Even as they convulse entire industries by empowering fleet-footed newcomers, existing companies are quietly employing many of the same innovations to reinvent their operations from the inside. Their efforts rarely make headlines. Nevertheless, these companies are profoundly altering the business landscape. This is their chance to strut.

For a slide show overview of the Web Smart 50, see "The Web's Mundane Miracles."

By Heather Green

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.