Working relationships Featured

5:31am EDT October 31, 2001
The promise of the Internet did not go down the drain along with the dot-com dreamers. The Information Superhighway has more uses than just trying to sell furniture to people in other states.

The ability to connect anyone -- and anything -- at all times is where the real potential lies. Information can freely flow from devices to the people who use or maintain them. These devices, whether a copy machine, air conditioner or other mechanical unit, can all be integrated into a larger information system.

''Our view is that these devices contain a lot of valuable information on customers,'' says John Canosa, chief scientist at Questra, a software company that integrates the Internet into everyday devices. ''Companies are always looking at ways they can get closer to the customer. These devices are right now sitting in a customer's space, and they use them every day.''

Canosa says that by taking the basic information from a copier, for example, a vendor can provide better service. Information on how often it's used, what it's used for and when it breaks down is all sitting there untapped.

''Until now, there really hasn't been an easy way to extract this information and get it into your systems to make use of it,'' says Canosa.

Some other examples:

* Manufacturing. Computer chip makers have hundreds of thousands of dollars invested in their manufacturing equipment. When the equipment isn't working, the chip makers aren't making money.

By tying the device to the machine's manufacturer via the Internet, its performance can be monitored. As problems and degradation of performance become evident, preventive maintenance can be done before the device fails.

* Service. Every office building probably has a rooftop air conditioner. If one should develop an oil leak in the compressor, the unit will eventually stop working. And if this happens in the middle of summer, your employees will probably stop working, too.

By tying the air conditioner into a monitoring system that is connected to the Internet, the service company can detect problems in advance and possibly even perform a remote diagnostic test so it can have the right parts on hand before ever going up on the roof.

''I personally believe the device revolution will actually dwarf the impact the Internet has had on the access to information,'' says Canosa. ''There will be more timely and more accurate information that will be collected and placed into a monitoring system. This is going to change how some organizations do business.''

This technology isn't years away, either. It's here right now. Wal-Mart has had its point-of-sale devices tied into its management system for years. FedEx spent tens of millions of dollars on its package tracking system.

''They had to build the entire system, and they were successful, but they had to spend large sums of money to do it,'' says Canosa. ''The Internet is bringing this to the masses. The infrastructure is already there. They don't have to spend millions to do it.''

New business software, whether it's customer relationship management software or something else, understands the language of the Web, which enables businesses to make the most out of this new data stream.

''If this is done right, you won't even see the computer,'' says Canosa. ''You're already interacting with computers every day that you don't know are there.''

On a basic level, it might mean you never run out of toner for your copier -- or even have to order any. You might make a deal with the vendor, who would then monitor your toner supplies via the device. When the supply runs low, a refill would be automatically ordered.

''This can provide a tremendous competitive advantage for manufacturers of these devices,'' says Canosa. ''Commoditization is ongoing in a lot of products and there are huge margin pressures, making it very difficult to differentiate your products. What the difference will be is that a company will be able to offer service and guarantee a 100 percent up-time.''

Vendors will transform from selling products to selling products plus services.

''We are in the genesis of the revolution,'' says Canosa. ''What we're seeing is affecting the ways people run businesses. The changes that are just starting will be profound.'' How to reach: www.questra.com

Todd Shryock (tshryock@sbnnet.com) is SBN Magazine's special reports editor.