Industries in Depth

What does the future of the internet look like?

Dries Buytaert
Founder and Project Lead, Drupal Co-founder, Board Chair & CTO, Acquia, Acquia
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The future of the web will be all about delivering the right information or service, to the right user, at the right time, on the right device. While this idea sounds pretty straightforward, in reality it’s tough to execute. Companies like Google, Facebook and Apple are investing a lot of time and energy into developing “personal assistants” that serve up highly customized streams of information, or even perform tasks through your mobile device. What if we had a similar concept for the web?

I call this idea “B2One”. Within the next decade, we’ll move from B2C to B2One, where we’ll create one-on-one relationships between people and companies. We carry technology with us nearly everywhere, and are consistently providing our devices with inputs – where we are, what we want, and what we’re doing. B2One asks: What if companies were able to make life easier, better and more customized to our preferences by making better use of this data?

We’ve seen the reverse of the personalization trend happen when the Industrial Revolution brought a shift from one-to-one relationships and handmade goods to machine-made products. This technological change increased productivity and capacity, and enabled the growth of capitalism. Factory owners and others who controlled the means of production rapidly became very rich, and working conditions in the factories were often less than satisfactory. It wasn’t until the 20th century, 150 years after its beginning, that the Industrial Revolution ended up creating a much higher standard of living than had ever been known in the pre-industrial world.

But this progress came at the expense of bespoke, custom-made goods. The idea of B2One promises to bring back the lost art of one-to-one consumer experiences with businesses, at a technological scale that rivals the Industrial Revolution. One reason why B2One is uniquely equipped to scale one-to-one personalization right now is that we’re swimming in data. The rise of mobile and the ubiquity of the internet are two major market forces driving the increase in user data.

According to Comscore, in March of 2015, mobile usage surpassed desktop computer usage for the first time. And in April 2015, the same research firm showed that smartphone usage is up 394%, and tablet usage is up 1,721%, as these platforms now combine to account for 60% of the time we spend on digital media. As the tides shift towards mobile and near-constant web access, the role of the traditional website must adapt to a need for real-time, contextual, and personally relevant information.


Source: Comscore, 2015

The big reverse: the next great shift for the web

As consumers continue to trend heavily towards mobile usage, I see a big reverse happening on the web. We once used to go looking for content, and now it needs to find us. In this push-based model, the website blends into the background and serves as connecting pipes to transmit data between a notification and an individual (kind of like an electrical grid or plumbing), versus a primary source of information. Imagine a world where information about your favorite products and services was proactively sent to you, saving time and frustration.

For example, an athletic apparel company such as Nike could work sensor technology into its shoes, telling me once I’ve run a certain number of miles and worn them out. Nike would have enough of a one-to-one relationship with me to push an alert to my smartphone or smartwatch with a “buy” button for new shoes, before I even knew I needed them. This type of data-driven interaction could be powered through a website, and still be completely automated. It’d be a win-win for both me and Nike; I wouldn’t need to re-enter my sizing and information into a website, and Nike would get a sale directly from me (disrupting both the traditional and online retail supply chain). In this example, the physical and digital world are intertwined; the digital experience becomes an invisible, integrated part of my life.

This basic concept of a proactive personal assistant running in the background exists in early stages with Google Now and Facebook’s M Concierge. Recently, at my company’s annual conference, Alan Shapiro of digital agency HUGE spoke about ambient experiences that are notification-free and occur entirely between machines, with no human interference. For example, a washing machine dispenser could weigh the amount of detergent left, and instantly place an order to Amazon Prime when the scale was running low. While we’re probably three to five years off from this type of entirely machine-driven experience, it’s interesting to think about in the context of changing consumer touch-points and the web becoming invisible.

More data, more consumer privacy implications

With this rampant data volume increase and fast exchange of consumer information come interesting privacy questions for us to figure out, sooner rather than later. For example, one major concern is the loss of personal data control. I believe if consumers had a greater understanding of why they’re seeing what they see from a personalized website or app, there would be less cause for skepticism. For example, you would question if your data is being misused far less frequently if you controlled what was being shared and how. As the web becomes infinitely more personal, we need to put power into the hands of the consumer in an easy-to-manage, intuitive way.

One way to do this is through the use of a personal information broker (PIM), which would let consumers select which information is shared with each website. A PIM could auto-fill information, recognize repeat interactions with companies or services, and begin to understand a person’s needs and preferences over time, fulfilling the full promise of B2One with the consumer’s permission.

Regulating the algorithms behind B2One

As technology becomes more present in our lives, we may find that everyday objects are driven almost entirely by the web. Many of these  experiences will be B2One – hyperpersonalized and driven by algorithms. But, as we approach this point, we need to consider key ethical questions about algorithms and the proper disclosure of information. I believe that we need a better system for regulating consumer-facing algorithms and protecting people, much like the FDA is set up to oversee the food and drug industry in the United States. The parallels between regulating the software industry and the FDA might be closer than we think.

Companies like Facebook and Google have brought us much closer to the reality of one-to-one web experiences, but on the flip side can serve as echo chambers for a single viewpoint. Politico recently reported that Google can build bias into search results for political candidates, simply by tweaking its algorithm. Research has shown that Google can shift voting preferences by 20% or more (up to 80% in certain groups), and potentially flip the margins of voting elections worldwide. The scary part is that none of these voters know what is happening.

Imagine if we had an FDA-like regulatory organization ensuring that algorithms are being used ethically. The FDA was formalized by President Theodore Roosevelt in the early 1900s as a response to abusive and dangerous practices in the food and drug industry. Much like the software industry today, at the time new medicines and vaccines were disruptive in a good way, promising to eradicate some of the diseases that had plagued people. But, for every innovation, there seemed to be an equal amount of extortion at the hands of companies with false medical claims or improper ingredient disclosure. Just as the FDA ensures that companies need to disclose ingredients to prevent people from ingesting poison, companies like Google should be required to provide some level of guarantees about not intentionally manipulating search results that could shape public opinion.

The technology industry will have a lot to consider as we march toward B2One. Ultimately, the consumer journey is going to become a lot more important than the digital experience destination. We’ll scale the idea of a personal assistant through interesting user interfaces, including voice activation, sensors, and other elements that will make the internet as invisible as a utility. The end goal is to vastly improve the lives of everyone on the web by making it faster, easier and more convenient to use than ever before – while still remaining safe and transparent for the consumer.

Author: Dries Buytaert, creator and project lead for the Drupal platform, president of the Drupal Association and co-founder and chief technology officer of Acquia and Mollom. Young Global Leader. You can follow his blog or on Twitter via @dries

This post is published as part of a blog series by the Human Implications of Digital Media project.

Image: Devices produced by U.S. manufacturer of computer networking equipment Netgear are displayed on a web during the IFA Electronics show in Berlin September 4, 2014. REUTERS/Hannibal Hanschke

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Industries in DepthFourth Industrial RevolutionCybersecurity
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