The term "Web 2.0" may be vague and even misleading, but the online trend it tries to describe is real and opens new possibilities for handling information throughout the electrical supply chain.
Much of the buzz, and most of the hype, among new services in the wide world of the Web today revolves around the idea of Web 2.0. Chances are good that you've been a part of Web 2.0 in some way, even without knowing there was an overarching term for it. If you've ever typed a comment on a weblog, connected with friends via MySpace, watched a video clip on YouTube, looked up information on Wikipedia, viewed photos on Flikr, or used information overlaid on Google Maps, you've had some experience with Web 2.0.
Web 2.0 has become a catch-all phrase to describe the confluence of social-networking sites, blogs, wikis, Web applications, mashups, etc. — particularly anything that builds on user-generated content and has emerged since the bursting of the dot-com bubble in 2001. Fundamentally, Web 2.0 pertains to software applications that use the Internet as a platform (as opposed to the operating system on your personal computer) and use the network effect of multiple users to make their services get better the more they're used.
The Web 2.0 phenomenon will undoubtedly have a growing impact on how business is done via the Web. Thus far, Web 2.0 and its community-building power have had little to do with the electrical products supply chain. Indeed, there are many distributors who still don't have a Web site at all. Only a few have gone beyond the most basic capabilities of the Web. If you hang around the electrical industry much longer, that impression will change. Several organizations are hard at work developing new projects that will bring the benefits of Web 2.0 to the electrical industry. Much of this work is being done quietly by people avoiding the spotlight until they have the details sorted out, but there's quite a bit of action behind the scenes.
Those who are already integrating Web 2.0 features into their offerings believe that when it does begin to take hold on a larger scale, the impact will be significant. Yet, the expectations are entirely different from the mid-1990s, when the Web first stormed the business world amid predictions that distributors in every supply chain would be disintermediated. Web 2.0 is more supportive than disruptive.
Web 2.0, as a philosophy, is not about trying to fit companies or users into hierarchies. That was a downfall of many companies in the initial dot-com bubble, says Bill Floyd of ElectricSmarts Network, Glastonbury, Conn., a company that offers multi-media training and promotional services through its Web site. “A true Web 2.0 company is just the opposite,” he says. “Rather than trying to fit companies into a formula, they find the parade and get in front of it. They find out how the market actually does work and put tools in place where people can work with those tools. We understand how the distribution chain works, and we've built our whole model along those lines, to not circumvent the distributor but to work with the distributor.”
What is it, Really?
Out in the wild where the Web cognoscenti dwell, many consider “Web 2.0” a meaningless buzzword used to generate hype and make an old technology seem new (typically in an effort to impress potential investors). The critics say the technologies being grouped under the Web 2.0 umbrella have been part of the World Wide Web's functionality from the beginning, and therefore a name that suggests it's a new version of anything makes no sense. (To learn about an actual new version of the Internet's underlying technology, see the sidebar, “IPv6: Internet in for Retooling”, on page 28.)
It's probably more useful to think of Web 2.0 as one stage in the maturation of the Internet as a medium for collaboration. It does refer to a significant change in how people use the Web. Web 2.0 is more about generating, sharing and leveraging data than it is about the underlying technology. Indeed, many sites that in hindsight are considered Web 1.0 have significant 2.0 functionality. Think of the customer book reviews on Amazon, or most of the services eBay provides. In both cases, user contributions fundamentally enhance the usefulness of these sites for everyone else, and that enhancement improves constantly over time. Let's take a look at some of the more prevalent aspects of Web 2.0:
Software as a service (SaaS): For a few years now, various commentators have been predicting that Google will one day threaten Microsoft's grip on the software market. That may have seemed like a stretch, until recently, as Google and Microsoft seemed to be in entirely distinct parts of the software business. Now it seems plausible that the Redmond monolith could one day lose its grip on the software market because desktop operating systems in general, Microsoft's sphere of dominance, could become largely irrelevant. Take your pick — Windows Vista, Mac OS X, the countless flavors of Linux — any of them will run a Web browser, and for many things you're used to doing on your computer, that's all you will need. Google already has introduced Google Docs and Spreadsheets, a service for uploading, sharing, annotating, editing and publishing word processing and spreadsheet documents, a move many see as the first steps in building a complete office suite. (Interim drafts of this article were written and edited in that environment, and they transferred from Microsoft Word to OpenOffice formats and back with very little trouble.) The Web itself is the software platform of the future, the operating system on which you can access any service you need.
SaaS applications, commonly referred to as Web apps, have substantial benefits over the software resident on your personal computer. Perhaps the most powerful of these benefits falls under the concept of “the perpetual beta.” In SaaS, the application is constantly improved — bugs fixed, features added — and every user is like a beta tester in the old software creation world, the ubernerd who spends hours playing with a pre-release version of an application, testing new features, trying to break the application and reporting his or her observations to the code developers. With SaaS, the application is running on the developers' systems, the error messages go directly to them, and they can analyze why something didn't work, often without you ever realizing it happened. Even better, there is no waiting for an upgrade, no downloading a patch, no checking whether you're a licensed user or not, because there are no licenses: you don't own the software, you merely use it.
SaaS applications are an advancement from the 1990s concept of application service provider (ASP) software in a fundamental way: Whereas ASP services are basically standard, stand-alone programs that the service provider makes available to users over the Web, SaaS services are designed from the base code up to use the Web as a platform — using HTML, XML, CSS, AJAX and other Web-native technologies to provide the same services as a stand-alone application, but with greater flexibility and speed.
At what point all this functionality will move into the enterprise information systems used by businesses is a subject of vigorous debate. There's little question left that it will get there in some form; in fact it may already be creeping past your firewalls in the form of employees building their own wikis to collect departmental best practices, or using Google's Gmail and Calendar apps to communicate and coordinate schedules. There are applications such as financial systems that business owners may never feel comfortable using with externally hosted applications, but for basic information collection and retrieval, the models being developed online are far more intuitive and flexible than the most robust internal customer relationship management (CRM) and salesforce automation applications.
The concept of SaaS lies behind much of what's going on in the Web 2.0 space. The social-networking sites, bookmarking communities, multi-media sharing sites, blogs, wikis and the rest can be viewed as providing software as a service that allows people to share information. The data that drives it all and creates the ultimate in Web 2.0 value is contributed by the users.
The core distinction that sets Web 2.0 apart from older online applications is the ability of the user to contribute to the value of a Web site and build on the contributions of others. Where most older Web sites provided information generated and controlled by the site's owner, Web 2.0 sites are distinguished by the ability of users to add their own information or modify what's there already. Rather than being merely consumers of information, users in the Web 2.0 space become participants in creating the site and shaping its evolution. Below are some broad examples of that principle in action:
When people hear Web 2.0, many associate it with the social-networking pheomenon. MySpace, Facebook, Friendster, LinkedIn and countless other sites set up to foster social-networking or business-networking communities have given everyone who cares to a format to share their interests and their connections with others. With the ability to easily add graphics and sound files to a personal page within a community that has built-in mechanisms to foster the creation of friendship networks, social-networking sites have become a focal point on the Web for many, especially teens and young adults, as well as businesspeople seeking to expand their spheres of influence and opportunity. Among newer entrants are sites that make it easy incorporate content from mobile phones and other portable devices so you can give your friends a constant view of where you are and what you're up to, including Kyte, Twitter, Radar and Jaiku.
Tagging and social bookmarking communities
Sites such as Digg, Reddit and del.icio.us allow people to annotate and share interesting things they've found on the Web with like-minded people, and to vote for sites or postings they like. This fosters the creation of ad-hoc communities around common interests and a rich terrain for further discoveries — sort of a self-sustaining guide to what other people have found interesting or useful in the vast spaces of the Web.
Multi-media sharing sites
Flikr and YouTube are among the most visible of the sites that allow users to upload large graphic and multi-media files and share them with other users, or anyone on the Web. With the ability to tag and categorize the media built into the system and placed in the hands of the users, these sites apply the viral-distribution advantages of social bookmarking to the sharing of images, video and music.
As a format for organizing the knowledge of a group and making its fractal associations available to all, the wiki has proven to be surprisingly powerful. The idea behind the best-known wiki, Wikipedia — that it would be feasible to create an encyclopedia of everything, written by everyone, and have it become a useful research tool instead of a shark pool of competing viewpoints — was radical from the outset. That it has become one of the most-visited sites on the Internet and is arguably as factually reliable as any other encyclopedia is evidence that user-generated content does not (necessarily) equal chaos if questions of fact can be debated in an open forum. The wiki format of massively hyperlinked entries connecting related subjects and facts so that the user can follow his or her own interests rather than working through a preset hierarchy of information is being used in all kinds of subject areas, from self-contained TiddlyWikis for personal and small-group collections of information to more elaborate academic and institutional settings.
Blogs may seem like old news by now, and they're really nothing but a standardized online journal with an interface that makes it very easy to add entries. But two bits of additional functionality led to their massive rise in popularity and made them the one of the most powerful phenomena of the early Web 2.0 era: they allow visitors to post comments on the entries written by the blog's host, and they feature “permalinks” that allow other sites to link to a specific entry and its associated user commentary, even after the blog's home page changes. These two innovations made it possible for bloggers to link to each other's entries and expound on them, fostering Web-wide conversations and the rapid dispersal of information and ideas. The addition of context-sensitive text ads from companies such as Google has made it possible for some bloggers to make an income from their blogs.
Content goes Everywhere
The development of new ways for information to disperse quickly throughout the Internet is an important and continuing feature of the Web 2.0 frontier. Web sites that have figured out how to get their content distributed easily on other people's sites have vastly larger reach than a simple banner ad connecting back to a promotional site. Google's AdSense system of making inconspicuous context-sensitive text advertisements available to bloggers and other sites has become a massive revenue generator for the company. With Google's closely guarded algorithms constantly sifting to improve the relevance of the ad placements, the system constantly improves over time.
Really Simple Syndication (RSS) and similar schemes such as Atom are another way Web sites have captured the viral nature of the Web to get their message out to as many users as possible. RSS feeds allow sites to feature streams of constantly updated information from a related site of interest to their visitors. They also allow individual users to “subscribe” to a feed for a site or blog that's of continuing interest. By entering the feed on a desktop feed-aggregator or a Web dashboard site such as MyYahoo, the user can track breaking stories from his or her preferred news site or see at a glance whether a favorite blogger has posted a new entry.
If you're unfamiliar with RSS, try this: Using any current browser, go to Electrical Wholesaling's home page, www.ewweb.com, and click on the RSS icon on the page or in your browser's address bar. Most browsers will allow you to select whether you want to add the feed to your bookmarks (“favorites” in Internet Explorer) or to a feed aggregation application on your desktop, or to a Web page such as Bloglines, MyYahoo or Google's personalized home page. Once you subscribe (which is free), you'll be able to see the latest news that's been added to the NewsWatch and Bulletin Board sections of EW's website.
Widgets and badges
A growing number of multi-media sites are now offering more advanced features to make their content available to other sites. The YouTube badge, to cite the most visible example, is just a bit of code that a site developer or a blogger can enter in the site code, and when viewed in a browser, it shows a fully functioning YouTube display that allows users to watch the video without leaving the site and going to YouTube itself.
One of the most promising areas of Web 2.0 development is the use of mashups to organize and overlay information in a way that makes it more useful. Mashups are often made of data drawn from outside sites, which are combined to make a new product. An example would be a site that takes real estate listings from CraigsList or crime statistics from a local government site and overlays that info on a map pulled in from Google Maps. Computer hardware vendors are offering specialized mashup servers to simplify the creation of mashups.
Originally viewed as anathema to law-abiding, copyright-respecting citizens of the world, peer-to-peer networking services have taken on a broader function in delivering information. Pioneers such as Napster popularized the idea of having people designate a public space on their personal computers where they could share large files. By splitting up the processing of the download into parts drawn from a large number of networked systems, P2P can deliver large files in a fraction of the time it would take to download them from a single server. Because popular files are stored on more peers in the network, the most in-demand files actually can be downloaded faster than those that have a smaller audience.
The fact that early P2P networks were frequently used to share copyright-protected music and video files put these services in a negative public light, but the system has broader value, and networks such as BitTorrent are being used in many contexts where large files such as program files and databases are made available to interested groups.
Web 2.0 concepts will make a difference in the way people in the electrical industry share information and collaborate, but at this point, it's hard to know what that difference will be. Electrical industry-oriented Web 2.0 services are just beginning to take shape. From brand marketing to training to tracking workers in the field, Web 2.0 creates significant possibilities, and it's hard to predict what users will eventually do with the capabilities once the power is in their hands.
The potential for viral, word-of-mouth marketing becomes enormous within the Web 2.0 space. Look at the way any utterance by a public official or celebrity becomes global knowledge within hours, via the Web today. The backlash over comments by radio celebrity Don Imus is just the most recent example. More relevant is recent research showing that people who are part of an online community, where opinions spread as rapidly as rumors, are far more heavily influenced by the product recommendations of their group than by advertising.
Companies in every industry are looking for ways to tap into the viral spread of information made possible by Web 2.0. Without an active pool of electrical industry users conversing online, sharing product and application information and influencing each other's purchasing decisions, marketing people may have to wait for now and watch the results of viral marketing experiments in fields with larger bases of online users.
This may also be the best time to experiment with the technology and work out the kinks. YouTube is one venue through which electrical companies are beginning to test the waters. Out of curiosity, Floyd of ElectricSmarts posted some of the company's online training videos on YouTube, just to see what would happen. “We haven't gotten a lot of looks, but we wanted to get it out there and see,” he says.
The use of mashups is expected to make a huge impact on the way all kinds of business information is exchanged and presented. Web 2.0 tools make it possible to combine information from various sources. BlueTech, Portland, Ore., is already working with mashups and hopes to push the idea much further in the near future. Fresh from a team visit to the Web 2.0 Expo last month in San Francisco, Don Spear, president, sees many applications for using mashups to help contractors on the jobsite.
The company's FieldRanger service is a wireless work-order system for companies such as electrical contractors that have field service personnel. Customers tied into the Sprint network can use the carrier's GPS location-based services combined with the wGPS Web-based FieldRanger service and get their field service people's coordinates plotted on a map on the FieldRanger site, making scheduling and tracking much simpler.
Says Spear, “Most of the communications with field service people amount to, ‘Where are you?’ ‘What are you doing?’ and ‘When are you going to be done?’ This system can tell them that without having to ask.”
Spear sees many future applications for mashups. “Translated to the electrical industry, or any internal business organization, mashups can be used to tie sales data to Google Maps, or news can be tied to customer databases, so when a story breaks about one of their customers they're the first to know.”
BlueTech, through its BlueVolt distributor learning management arm, is also preparing to introduce applications that use user-generated content by creating a mechanism for manufacturers to keep the most current contact information available to all their distributors, Spear says.
Spear sees further Web 2.0 applications in the BlueVolt learning management service and is eager to start experimenting with them. “BlueVolt is built to be an ecosystem, so manufacturers, distributors and electricians can all provide training for each other where appropritate,” he says. Within that space, he sees opportunities to foster “more collaboration, more communications with each other through chat and message boards, and ways to collect information from our system and mash it up with information from other systems.”
Badges and widgets have already begun to find a place in the electrical world as well. ElectricSmarts handles production and distribution of educational and promotional videos for electrical manufacturers, among other things. The video files are hosted on ElectricSmarts' servers and made available to distributors and others to use on their sites using a widget. ElectricSmarts also is loading the videos on Apple's iTunes site as downloadable Podcasts that users can load on a video iPod or other portable device and view whenever they want.
“We're working with manufacturers to build services where they can download e-learning tools,” Floyd says. “Their sales reps can download the content and put it in their pocket, so they're kept abreast of the latest technology. For example, if they're selling a new lighting product, they can pull it out and go through a review before they walk in to do a sales call, or use it in the sales call to demonstrate an application.”
ElectricSmarts recently introduced a browser toolbar designed to give distributors' customers quick and easy access to their distributors. “It gets away from the thinking that people have to go to our Web site,” Floyd says. “We would love them to come and see us, but our question was, ‘What would a customer want, and what would a distributor want?’ If possible, they'd want some kind of umbilical cord taking them right back into the distributor, with buttons to purchasing functions or the distributor catalog. With the toolbar right in their browser, the distributor could feed changes to the toolbar — promote contests, new products — then pull it out and put a new contest in there and the customer never has to re-install the toolbar. Based on his profile, we can send him not only the content he's interested in, but we can not send him content he doesn't want to see.”
This may seem far-fetched, but Web 2.0 concepts could bring some radical thinking to the electrical industry as well. The proliferation of open-source approaches to endeavors that were previously tightly controlled could be applied to various functions within a supply chain. There are some radical open-source experiments underway that leverage user participation to drive things like new-product development. CrowdSpirit is one ambitious example. The site aims to utilize “crowdsourcing” to develop small electronic devices such as MP3 players, digital cameras and game controllers, and bring them to market. Community members will decide what the product is, from concept to design to technical specification, by submitting and voting on product and design ideas. Winning ideas will then be funded by members of the community, and after prototyping and beta testing, the completed products will be delivered to market.
How Web 2.0 will affect the industry is yet to be discovered, but some uses are more likely than others. “Nobody's building a MySpace for the electrical industry,” says Spear of BlueTech. “They're taking Web 2.0 concepts and applying them in more relevant ways. It's a little early in our industry to see any widespread use. We do see some chat and message-board technologies being used. Some are using internal communication through chat systems to share and exchange technical information and customer support data and extend those across organization. Collaboration is the key.”
The opportunities for building brand awareness through viral marketing and leveraging user interaction to enhance the value of information services are many, widespread and evolving before our very eyes. The application of these ideas in the electrical industry has already begun. “Web 2.0” may or may not be the right term, but it's the one the online community at large has settled on to describe the flourishing of technologies that foster seamless collaboration and harness group energy. All that remains is for organizations within the electrical industry to discover how Web 2.0 can help them do their jobs.
IPv6: Internet in for Retooling
A new Internet protocol has created a Y2K moment for network providers such as IDEA.
Some have compared it with changing the engines on a moving airplane, others speculate that purveyors of pornography will benefit most. To most Internet users, the change may go unnoticed. But for Tom Guzik and his team of consultants and technical staff at the Industry Data Exchange Association (IDEA) in Arlington, Va., the transition to a new Internet protocol recalls the run-up to the year 2000, when programmers everywhere were working around the clock, racing to upgrade computer systems before a hard deadline.
The urgency comes from a mandate sent down by the U.S. government that starting in June 2008, everyone who wants to do business with the Department of Defense (DOD) must do so over networks equipped to handle Internet Protocol version 6 (IPv6). Many electrical distributors do huge business with the DOD, and some of the largest do so over IDEA's IDX2 network.
The transition is hardly trivial. It involves substantial changes to base-layer coding on the network, reconfiguration or replacement of routers and other networking devices, hours upon hours of work and substantial costs.
Guzik, IDX2 product manager, asked his programmers to estimate what it would take to get the IDX2 reconfigured for IPv6 by the end of the year. They gave their professional opinion: “It can't be done.” Faced with no choice, Guzik brought in a consulting engineer to look at the code and the details of the IPv6. The engineer's answer: “We'll have to start right now.”
IPv6, a complete rethinking of the Internet protocol that governs how data moves across the network, offers a solution to a problem that's not yet a problem, but will be soon. The Internet is running out of IP addresses. Every device that connects to the Internet must have a unique address. With the explosion of Internet usage seen thus far, and the added surge that will come as telephone signals and electronic appliances increasingly communicate over the Web, the pool of ten-digit addresses in the current IPv4 will soon be exhausted. IPv6 replaces them with a 20-digit address protocol that makes the available number of addresses essentially limitless.
IPv6 has many other advantages over IPv4 that will result in better security, mobility, stability and speed. Making the change by the end of the year so the system can be tested and verified before the June deadline will require both stability and speed from the IDX2 technical crew, and perhaps patience and perseverence as limitless as the pool of addresses IPv6 will create.