x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

Ask what the Web can do for you

The impressive growth of the internet is entering a new phase, and the only barrier to using it to your great advantage is your imagination. Fortunately, this is a free and plentiful resource that can shape the coming decades. Eric Schmidt, the chief executive of Google, writes.

Even though the internet has empowered individuals more than ever before, Eric Schimdt, the chief executive of Google, says only those who best use their imagination will shape the future.
Even though the internet has empowered individuals more than ever before, Eric Schimdt, the chief executive of Google, says only those who best use their imagination will shape the future.

The Web used to be about going to a site and reading what you see. But now your browser is a gateway to a vast array of services - from your e-mail, social and photo sites to powerful financial management and business analytical tools, powered by data centres around the world.

Even small organisations have virtually infinite computing power at hand. The savviest are asking themselves: what will I do with it? The answer lies in four pervasive trends that are pushing the internet to a new phase of growth and sophistication. First, the Web is mobile. With the advent of smartphones that are designed with internet use in mind, more and more people are going online without PCs.

Last year, more new internet connections were established from mobile devices than from PCs and laptops. In countries such as Indonesia, South Africa and Nigeria, more people now search Google from phones than from computers. Soon, virtually everyone will be able to access the internet - and the world's information - from the palm of his or her hand. Second, the Web is democratic. Not only can anyone access information but anyone can publish it. More than 20 hours of video are uploaded to YouTube every minute (a year ago, the figure was about 10 hours). Blogging, the self-publishing mode of choice for many years, has now been joined by shorter, real-time formats such as Facebook and Twitter (50 million tweets are posted every day). Information has become not only democratic but also instant: everyone can know everything right now.

Third, the Web is powerful. Take a mobile device twice as powerful as your five-year-old laptop and connect it to millions of servers, and you can do things that were simply impossible even a few years ago. Voice recognition, for example, is a problem that can finally be solved. Today I can speak a command into my phone ("navigate to Qasr al Hosn") and it will accurately respond. Universal translation becomes feasible. I can walk into any restaurant in the world and read the menu, thanks to the camera on my phone and its ability to connect to instant online translation. Online, there are no language barriers.

Fourth, the Web is scaling up. If you've been impressed with the Web's growth in the past decade, you haven't seen anything yet. Today the internet connects nearly 700 million host servers, but that number will jump to billions as a multitude of devices, appliances and sensors come online. Pressure sensors on the ocean bottom that are regularly posting information to the Web helped marine scientists around the Pacific detect tsunami activity caused by the recent Chilean earthquake.

New sources like this will lead to exponentially more data flowing through the Web, adding to the 1.2 petabytes that were created last year. Meanwhile, network providers are busily working on next-generation pipes. Bell Labs is testing undersea cables that deliver data 10 times faster than current ones, which will help ensure that the virtuous cycle of exponential growth won't slow down. As these trends converge, we are all bearing witness to a remarkable transformation. Information scarcity is giving way to information ubiquity.

The economist Joseph Schumpeter famously observed that capitalism inevitably leads to a "perennial gale of creative destruction". This next gale is going to be bigger than ever. How will you thrive in the new environment? Regardless of your endeavour, if your strategy doesn't integrate the mobile, democratic, powerful, scaling-up Web, you may well fail. Because someone else's plan will. Think big in everything you do, which is hard since assumed limitations are instinctive and our brains do not calculate compounding very well.

Listen well and be open, because customers and constituents have more information and choice than ever before. If you're not sure, ask them and get feedback. Some of it will be bad, but you will be better off for having had the conversation. Experiment frequently and fail well, learning and getting smarter with each round. As Voltaire noted, the perfect really is the enemy of the good, because if you wait until it's "perfect" someone will produce something more quickly that is merely good - and then iterate fast and often.

Finally, remember that people are more empowered than ever before and the well-defined roles of the pre-internet world are gone. Everyone is your customer, since you can reach people just about anywhere and anytime (and vice versa). Everyone is your competitor, since small start-ups can achieve multinational reach practically overnight. And everyone is your partner, since great ideas are just as likely to come from a cafe or garage as from a corporate research and development laboratory.

When computing and information are limitless, the only barrier to success is a lack of imagination. Fortunately, imagination is a free and plentiful resource, and the organisations that best tap into it will shape the coming decades.