Micro-Containers: An Example of Strategic Web Thinking

by Jakob Nielsen on May 31, 1998

The Web will drive major changes in society. These changes will reflect back and cause major changes in the Web, resulting in an accelerating cycle of change. In earlier history, the automobile caused people to migrate to suburbs, which again caused congested freeways and the need for commuter cars with airbags.

In my column on the top ten mistakes in Web management, I complained that most people underestimate the strategic impact of the Web. When you think about the Web in existing terms, you will invariably end up with modest plans for moving current processes online. Without strategic thinking, you will not realize the benefits of completely new ways of doing things.

This column is an example of the potential for reaching for new goals by thinking strategically about the Web. This is only one example: the Web will cause many, many more huge shifts in society and in the way you should run your business. Nobody can predict all of these changes, and some of the things we do predict may not happen after all. The point is not to forecast the exact future of the Web but to understand the range of possible transitions such that you can be ready for them and such that you can drive your site in those directions that are promising. After all, change happens because you make it happen.

Change in Housing Patterns

The Web and other Internet communications tools will come close to making geography irrelevant in ten years. With sufficiently good communications technology, people can live anywhere in the world and still work together and be as productive as when they all lived within a short distance from each other.

The death of distance will take some time. Ultra-cheap long-distance communications is necessary but not sufficient. Sure, it will soon cost a cent a minute to call across the Atlantic, but that doesn't mean that the call can replace a face-to-face meeting. There will never be a technology that beats having lunch, but we can design systems that come close.

Two technological advances must happen before geography can become irrelevant:

  • High-resolution screens that can display remote meeting participants without making them look like a puppet theater. High-definition television is insufficient, but screens with maybe 10,000 by 6,000 pixels should provide reasonable images. The bandwidth to deliver ultra-high-quality video is probably ten years away according to Nielsen's Law of Internet bandwidth.
  • Much-enhanced collaboration software that actually helps people work and relax together. Current groupware only works for people who are forced to use it as part of a structured work environment.

As these improvements make geography steadily more irrelevant, more and more people will move away from congested locations. We may never reach a completely even residential distribution that has no population centers, but it is very likely that the Web will cause a major crash in real estate prices in overpriced areas like Manhattan, Silicon Valley, London, and Tokyo in five years.

Change in Distribution Patterns

As people move to remote areas, they will need to ship more physical objects back and forth. Even before housing patterns change, the Web will drive huge increases in mail order as it becomes easier and more attractive to order products from a screen than to go to a store.

Micro-Containers: A Packet Network for Atoms

Large containers (the size of trucks) have revolutionized maritime shipping: ships do not need to stay in port as long as they used to, and cranes and other equipment have been standardized. Instead of tracking each ship's storage holds, freight lines can track the containers and route them between ships as appropriate. With increased computer processing power, the same idea can now be applied to much smaller units the size of small packages.

The increased need for physical distribution can be met by defining a set of standard shipping boxes of varying sizes that can easily be stacked and tracked. Tracking may be implemented by bar codes in a standard location, by a built-in micro-transmitter, or by some new, yet-to-be-invented technology.

I predict the emergence of three networks of micro-containers:

  • regular packages
  • refrigerated packages: the packages are guaranteed to always be kept in an environment below a certain temperature, thus removing the need for each package to carry its own insulation and cooling materials
  • fragile contents: the packages are guaranteed to never be subjected to forces beyond a certain limit, meaning that contents can arrive in good shape without heavy padding

By making each package into one of a few standard micro-containers and by designing complete delivery networks to support the major types of packages, shipping can be run much more cheaply than today, dramatically reducing the shipping and handling charges for Web orders. A standardized tracking system will furthermore make it trivial for vendors and buyers to discover the current location of each package and to change its destination en route. For example, if you leave the office early one day, you could have that afternoon's packages delivered to your house: the Web will allow recipients to monitor and reroute incoming mail.

Patent Bonanza

I have not scoped out the micro-container system in detail, but I am sure that many inventions and advances in technology will be necessary to implement it. Anybody who takes on this project will gain a highly valuable patent portfolio.

In general, the Web is different from many earlier changes in the business environment in allowing for patents for many of the new business strategies because they are supported by technology. I strongly recommend that companies start treating the Web as their primary strategic business driver such that they can take part in this patent bonanza. The smallest hesitation will allow your competitors to collect the patents on everything you need to survive. Futurism is no longer a luxury: it's a necessary defensive measure to get your patents in place.

I have posted some reader comments on this Alertbox: whether cities will die; why people don't buy good displays.

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