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Where Is Web Technology Taking Us? A Computer Engineer Shares His Thoughts on the Future


Jakob Nielsen's official title at Sun Microsystems is "distinguished" engineer. But "supreme guru" better describes what he actually does at the Silicon Valley computer company, he says.

A native of Denmark, Nielsen worked at the advanced research laboratories of IBM and Bellcore before coming to Sun four years ago to help design easier-to-use computers. With the emergence of the Web, Nielsen was put in charge of designing Sun's Web site.

Today, Nielsen is part of Sun's five-person science office, which is charged with looking at how people will use technology in the future. Nielsen's task is to study how people use the Web today and how it will evolve.

Nielsen will be participating in the Conference on Computer-Human Interaction (CHI 98) at the Los Angeles Convention Center running Saturday through April 23.

He spoke with Cutting Edge about the growth of the World Wide Web and the issues surrounding it.

Question: Is the Web over-hyped?

Answer: I don't think so. There is a huge, huge untapped potential. The Web can be compared to the telephone or electricity. Today people wouldn't feel it if they suddenly didn't have the Web anymore. But that won't be true in the future. Like electricity, it's a foundation. . . . Once you are connected all the time, no matter where you are, everything will be different.

Q: How soon will that happen? Can the Web maintain its current growth rate?

A: While the rate of growth is slowing, the absolute increase is dramatic. In 1993, the Web grew by about 18 times from 34 Web sites to 623 sites. This year, the Web will grow by only three times but it will grow from 2.2 million sites to about 6 million sites. That's nearly 4 million new sites. In 10 years, there will be 200 million Web sites. In that time, we will go from 50 million to 100 million people worldwide [on the Web] to 1 billion people. Once you get to a billion people continuously connected on a single system, that is completely unprecedented.

Q: Does the world really need 200 million Web sites? What will they be used for?

A: I think that every single company will have a Web site. Most people will have a Web site. The personal Web site will be like your face to the world. Every time you hire somebody, you will go look at their Web site. It's like an online resume. You might also have a truly personal Web site with family pictures for friends and relatives.

Q: What about privacy?

A: There will be a control agent that determines how much you will reveal to whom. That control agent could also decide who is allowed to contact you [by phone or e-mail]. It will be like having a personal secretary, except it will be cheap enough to give it to everybody. It will drive a huge productivity increase because it will help you manage your time. Today computers are time wasters to a large extent, but [with the Net] they will become time managers and time optimizers.

Q: What kinds of changes do you foresee in the economy as a result of the Web?

A: Most Web sites now are like an online business card. But in five years, when 70% of the people [in the U.S.] are online, then the Web becomes your primary way of doing business. In five years, the Internet will be a $1-trillion economy. It will restructure the way you do business. There will be a lot of unbundling of businesses. Right now, if you go to a shop, you get advice about a product and you pay for the advice through the price of a product. In the future, there could be a one-person bookstore [on the Web] that recommends books. The site would provide a link to that would be the fulfillment service.

Q: But isn't there a problem with the business model? Not many people are making money on the Net today.

A: Oh, yeah. The only way [to make money] today is to aggregate people's eyeballs and charge for advertising. But advertising doesn't work on the Web except for search engines. A user reading an article on one of those online magazines is very unlikely to click on the ads. The overwhelming number who do click on an ad bail out immediately by clicking on the back button, because they don't find what they want.

The current business models don't work because they lack a micro-payment system. That's where you pay per page view or per transaction. Without that system, [Web sites] lack the ability to extract value from [attracting] people to their Web site.

Q: So how would the micro-payment system help?

A: In principle, it is ridiculous to have a network like CBS. What you should have is 10,000 different editors, each of whom will assemble a package of recommended stuff for you based on the films, news or shows they like and have seen. Each editor produces a Web page that has links to each of the shows they recommend. You click on them if you want them. That goes to the production studio and it downloads to you that show. The production studio gets a certain percentage of the payment and the editor who recommends it gets another percentage. You need a system for all those payment streams.

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