Dawn of the brave new world of social computing


September 20, 1993|By PETER H. LEWIS

Without knowing exactly what it will all mean, everyone seems to be talking about the impending convergence of computer networks, groupware, telephone services, hand-held electronic devices, cable television, the Internet and other on-line information services, mixed in with the entertainment industry, traditional news media and other communications technologies.

Such was the buzz last week in Boston at Forrester Research Inc.'s Technology Forum, where business executives gathered to exchange ideas about what they called social computing.

Social computing, a communications-rich brew, is expected to create new ways for businesses and their customers to communicate, over new types of wireless as well as wired pathways, using new types of computers called personal communicators. The rise of social computing is expected to shift the emphasis of computing devices away from simple numbers-crunching and data-base management to wider-ranging forms of business communications.

"Within five years," said William M. Bluestein, a senior analyst with Forrester, "a barrage of new technologies will radically change your relationship with customers, product features and service delivery, and the structure of manufacturing, sales, service and distribution."

"A technological shock wave is about to strike society and the workplace," Bluestein said. "In the last six months, computer hardware manufacturers, software providers, cable TV operators and phone companies have been caught up in a frenzied mating dance."

Of course, we've heard all this sort of breathless rhetoric before, and we've seen that some companies are not very good dancers.

But Forrester, which is often given credit for coining the term and defining the idea of client-server computing back in 1987, sees social computing as the next big wave. Whereas client-server broke away from mainframe-based systems and distributed computing power to everyone in the organization, social computing goes the next step and, riding atop client server for a while, extends the distribution of computing power to a company's customers and suppliers.

The word social is important, the Forrester executives believe, because the same technologies that will enable better communication between companies and their workers will also spread rapidly to the consumers of a given company's products and services.

One way to think about this new era is to think of the past. The history of computing in businesses started with a giant central mainframe and has inexorably moved outward, to the department, to the desktop, to the briefcase. Computers have gotten smaller and cheaper and more powerful along the way.

It is difficult to construct a scenario that would change this relentless move outward from the core of the business. Taken to the next step -- and this is what social computing is all about -- the computing power will move into the pockets of the workers and eventually into the homes and pockets of the customers.

Another way to look at this era is to forget the past. Forget Citibank's horrible experience with home banking. Forget the shop-at-home-via-cable TV networks, even though it's a $2 billion business. Forget even such recent services as paying bills by computer, even though it is a billion-dollar business.

Instead, think of Federal Express and UPS, which are already involved with computing systems that enable a worker to encode and track packages from hand-held, wireless computers. Think of movie theaters in Boston that earlier this year sold 40 percent of their tickets to big hits by telephone, using touch-tone services.

Think about the way you want to work with other businesses. If you're shopping for a car, you can already log on to Compuserve, request a printout of the make and model you're considering and get a printout of the dealer invoice from the factory.

Some early, rudimentary examples of social computing are already beginning to appear, and it's not too early to start thinking about how this big cloud of gas will affect your company when it coalesces into a star.

Colin Crook, senior technology officer of Citibank N.A./Citicorp in New York, noted in a presentation at the gathering that formidable barriers must be overcome for social computing to take hold.

The hurdles are regulatory (the government has to determine whether the pathways are public or private, and who gets the bandwidth), legal (in the form of copyrights), financial (how is the cost of the new services shared?), cultural (if you can't program your VCR, why would you buy insurance over a wireless Newton Message Pad?) and, of course, technical (Apple won't even let me touch a Message Pad until I've flown to California for a few hours of indoctrination, which is hardly a good sign for something that is supposed to be a consumer product).

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