The Web is becoming a vital administrative tool for a growing number of businesses. Companies can now outsource almost anything to Web-based services, from debt collection to human resources.
Where do you want to go today?" Microsoft wants to know. A better question might be "What do you want to do?"
The "where" thing worked OK up until about a year ago. The early Web, after all, was built on metaphors of place. An opening Web page was home. Sites had addresses. Users had destinations. Browser names like Navigator and Explorer hinted at uncharted territories. There was a there there.
That early conception of the Web may explain why people have found it so difficult to turn a buck on-line. Making money from "place" generally translates into real estate, but the value of real estate on the Internet is either piffling or nonexistent. Mired in the metaphor of geography, entrepreneurs thrashed around looking for places that might be rendered digitally--stores and malls and newsstands and libraries--and they built them. Some of the smarter ones recognized that places need entryways, and so portals were born. But beyond a few qualified successes, nothing has suggested that place--as a business model--is a going concern.
Of late, however, the Web has been feeling less like a place and more like a thing. Or rather, an aggregation of things, many of them common business tools that exist--often more cumbersomely--in the real world. That shift is exemplified in David Rath's story, " Let the Net Do It," in which Web sites act as document vaults, debt collectors, HR departments--all manner of services, functions, things that companies use every day. And it is in that everydayness that opportunity lies: the chance to become an indispensable part of customers' lives as opposed to a pleasant spot they pop in on now and again.
And what is more mundane than personal organizers? The Web, once a place to while away the hours, is suddenly awash in devices that help you organize the hours you can't afford to while away. On-line calendars like When.com, ScheduleOnline, and Jump! are kissing cousins to (and fully compatible with) such ubiquities as Microsoft Outlook and the PalmPilot--and are not trying to replace them. But each has its special Web hook: links to retail and entertainment sites that will, for example, plop the opening date of the new Star Wars movie into your calendar (When.com) or a group function that checks your associates' calendars for conflicts before setting up meetings (ScheduleOnline). Contact managers are also getting the Web treatment. At PlanetAll.com, for example, you can import all your names, phone numbers, and E-mail addresses and, if you choose to, share them with other users of the site. The advantages to such services are obvious. For one thing, most of them are free. And it's impossible to misplace or forget them. As long as there's a browser nearby, users are never up a creek, paddleless.
Outsourcing sites let people run pieces of their companies on-line. Organizer sites let them run pieces of their lives there. The more pieces of themselves people trust to the Internet, the more they'll use the network. And the more they use the network, the more money nose-to-the-wind entrepreneurs stand to make from their on-line ventures.
Conventional wisdom has it that technologies are tools, not ends in themselves. The Internet, with its razzle and its dazzle and its toy-box-like variety, has long been the exception. With its emerging thingness, however, the Web is coming to seem as pragmatic as any desktop or back-office workhorse, with the bonus that when you're done working, you can click over to Hollywood Online or ESPN SportsZone for a bit of diversionary reward.
Is the Internet among your favorite office supplies? Tell me about it.
LEIGH BUCHANAN is an editor at large for Inc. magazine. A former editor at Harvard Business Review and founding editor of WebMaster magazine, she writes regular columns on leadership and workplace culture. @LeighEBuchanan