Reelin’ in the Years

One of the most potent tools available to businesses today is the ability to track the location and browsing habits of their customers, and then market to potential customers with the same habits.

I’ve been writing Tech Talk for more than 20 years, which gives me a measure of perspective on business and technology, the ostensible topic of this column. In some ways, the basic tech used by businesses hasn’t changed over the past two decades. Many companies still rely on the Microsoft Office Suite (Word, Excel, Powerpoint, Outlook) and Quickbooks as the systems on which their business runs. Even in 2001, the Internet and World Wide Web were well-established. Amazon.com, the poster child for the internet (at least at the time) had gone public 3 years earlier. In fact, the “dot-com bubble” had burst a year earlier, in March of 2000. Remember that?

So, what has changed in the interim? From where I sit, there are three things developments, all interrelated. The first was the development of a technology called AJAX (Asynchronous JavaScript and XML), which allows web pages to be much more interactive. The technology appeared in a primitive form in Microsoft’s implementation of Outlook Web Access and allowed parts of a web page to be updated with information from outside sources without having to re-display the entire page. Outlook Web Access (in 1997) begat Gmail (2004), which begat Google Docs, which begat Outlook 365 and a raft of other responsive web-based applications. Most people have never heard of AJAX. Some may have noticed the drastic change in how web pages became more responsive and useful. But for the most part, it was a silent revolution: the decline of desktop applications and the rise of web-based ones. For many years, I wrote this column using Microsoft Word, which I installed on my laptop from a CD-ROM. (Remember those?) But nowadays, Google Docs is where I do my writing, and my columns are stored on my Google Drive. I can write anywhere I have web access.

The second development of the past two decades is, of course, the smartphone, which nowadays is less of a phone and more a little machine that runs apps. The smartphone changed phone plans from being about minutes of talk and number of text messages to the amount of data provided. Our data and essential apps started to live “in the cloud” and to access them via our phones and laptops meant that being connected to the internet via cellular radio or Wi-Fi became more important to people. It also meant that people began to expect businesses would be responsive to their needs 24/7. And businesses began to expect the same from at least some of their employees.

The last thing? Along with little “always connected” computers in our pockets came user tracking. One of the most potent tools available to businesses today is the ability to track the location and browsing habits of their customers, and then market to potential customers with the same habits. Targeted digital marketing has driven Google and Facebook to new heights, while Apple now threatens to throw a wrench into user tracking: iOS 14.5 has a new feature, App Tracking Transparency, which makes it much harder for businesses to track users across applications on their Apple devices. (I’ll write more about this change in a future column.) But currently, targeted online messaging really works for businesses.

Of course, most businesses don’t have the wherewithal to pursue cutting-edge technology on their own. So, we’ve seen the rise of “X as a Service”. For example, OpenTable is “Restaurant Reservations as a Service.” Rather than a restaurant having to build its own website and mobile application, they use OpenTable. They don’t have to worry about scaling their system to handle a flood of reservations. OpenTable provides a quality interactive experience that most non-chain restaurants couldn’t rival. Companies that need to build web-based services no longer have to build the infrastructure. Amazon Web Services, which powers not only Amazon itself, but companies like Netflix, LinkedIn, Facebook and many others, is “Infrastructure as a Service” and fundamentally changed the way that web-based applications are hosted. Square is “Credit Card Processing as a Service”. The list goes on.

Businesses approach technology in different ways. There’s the if-it-ain’t-broke-don’t-fix-it approach: whatever tech I’m using today is just fine. There’s also the “I can’t take the pain anymore” approach: I’m only changing because the tech I have isn’t working for me. Finally, there’s the “How could this technology help my business thrive” approach, which speaks for itself. While I appreciate that any new tech has both tangible and intangible costs for a business, I’d like to think that my readers are in that final group. Technology introduced over the past two decades makes it easier than ever to provide users with state-of-the-art interaction whether they use a computer or their phone. “X as a service” makes it possible for businesses to focus on the core elements that distinguish them. It’s all in your approach.

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