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Wired into tomorrow Featured

9:55am EDT July 22, 2002
Ron Copfer is a veteran of technology. Before the information explosion of the early 1990s, he was one of a handful of interactive software developers in Northeast Ohio. His firm, Copfer & Associates, helped design interactive programs for the NASA-Lewis Research Center and Lubrizol in the 1980s. He pioneered the use of computers to help law firms prepare for litigation. Today, Copfer is a regular speaker at Internet conferences and one of the premier software developers in the Midwest. SBN sat down with him to discuss the radical changes in technology over the past decade and what we can expect to see in the future.

Q: What was your first experience with interactive software?

A: Around 1987. I got a disk from Buick Motors that fit into a Macintosh and it literally changed my life. You could look at the 1988 Buick models, change colors and see all the options. It also gave you a list of regional dealers. That blew my mind because it was well designed and well conceived. I knew from the moment I saw that disk that was what I wanted to do.

Q: How simple was the programming?

A: Very basic. I did a lot of research trying to find out who made it and how much Buick paid for it. It was developed by a company in Texas for around $1.3 million. Today, that same program would cost maybe $20,000. The development tools available are easier to work with and the technology is much less expensive.

Q: You were an earlier user of Freenet. What was that like?

A: We had a 300-baud modem, one of the first 300k digital modems. It didn’t work very well and was very frustrating, especially when you consider that it cost $2,000. At the time, I was a pessimist. But I had a guy who was all gung ho about it and used to drag me in front of the computer and show me what we could do. I used to tell him to find a way to make money off it.

Q: What did you find?

A: We found out we could get connected information stores throughout the country. So to try to make my investment worthwhile, I had some of my staff use Freenet to look up case law and case points for cases we were working on. We also used it to look up background information on industries and companies we were trying to make proposals to for new business.

Q: You were using it for business information. What do you think about how much information’s available now?

A: I think it’s inundating. Now we have metainformation, or information about information. For example, if you want to look for a plumber on the Internet, why go to the Yellow Pages? Because it’s geographically related. One of the big aberrations of Internet-based information is that it’s not bound into any kind of geographic context. You have to narrow your search down and that takes a lot of time and energy.

The beauty of the Internet doesn’t lie with searching for background research on case law or how to use technology or how to go buy a Palm Pilot. A lot of what is out there lives in a confusing quagmire of connections. I find it terribly confusing to use an engine like Yahoo. You just get lost. I think we’re going through another growth spurt with the Internet about cataloging information about information so it makes it easier to find and more logically oriented. That way, if I’m looking for something geographically based, I can search Ohio or Cleveland or 10 miles from where I’m located and have some relevancy about my search.

Q: Not that long ago, Web sites were the hot topic for business owners. Has that changed?

A: This year, we expect 60 percent of our Web development work to be intranet development. That’s where companies are finding the most instantaneous return on their technology investment. For example, when we build an HR self-service kiosk, that year they’ll see a return on the investment. They’ll save paper costs, personnel costs and distribution costs.

Or, we could develop tools for companies to collect information. We built an automated survey builder so companies could do surveys online. If you wanted to do a comparable survey, you’d spent $60,000 or $70,000. We can do it for $10,000 and have people

access it through the Internet. Companies are realizing huge savings in specialty intranet applications. Unless you have e-commerce capabilities, you don’t really see a return on your investment. Technology is kind of a cost center, especially Web sites.

Q: What’s the next generation of development?

A: Managing information. As more people climb onto the Interne,t we’re seeing huge problems. Ask any busy business person how much time they spend surfing the Net looking for information and they’ll probably come out of their skin. It’s terribly aggravating to go to Yahoo and try to find something. If you don’t know how the Web works, it’s hard to find what you want.

But we think we’ve barely scratched the surface in e-commerce applications. We see more people doing it in greater volume. Whether it’s subscriptions, information or products delivered to your home, if a company doesn’t have an e-commerce Web site in the next 12 to 18 months, they’re seriously jeopardizing their future business. It’s just as natural as hanging a sign in front of your shop.

Q: Do you think that some people may be relying on Web sites too much?

A: Yes. Some people do think e-commerce is a sort of Holy Grail that’s going to save their bottom line revenue stream. That’s probably a false model. Clearly, some companies are completely dependent on the e-commerce model, like Amazon.com, but others who have walk-in retail traffic should use it to complement their normal business.

Another area that’s going to change is the whole EDI system. Up until now, the system of business-to-business commerce has been protected by 13 or 14 private companies who own the back channel. The Internet is exploding their business model because I can have any one of our customers talk to any other business through the Internet instead of through a closed network. We’ll see a big change in the next 24 months away from EDI toward more open standards. Everybody will have the same portals.

Q: What’s driving that change?

A: With the Internet, those small vendors are going to say to those General Motors that it’s going to be cheaper to cut their costs if the EDI systems are open to Web standards. That’s going to be the hook, if the suppliers say it doesn’t need to cost a quarter million dollars to hook into an EDI system.

Using the Web, they can do it for less than $30,000. That’s going to drive the cost of doing business down. The free market will make it a reality. We’re seeing this already. Our customers, such as Parker-Hannifin, are building open standard EDI systems, while at the same time maintaining back-end closed EDI systems.

Q: What new products have you been working on?

A: We’ve invented a new product called Erectosite. It’s a client server application like a Front Page for dummies. We’re finding that companies are getting tired of paying $30,000 to $40,000 a month retainer fees to keep sites updated and edited when it’

s almost a clerical operation. Erectosite allows a person to log on, and through the use of pre-built templates to click on a picture and change it, or change text or drop in a new link.

Companies could use it to drastically cut down their cost of doing maintenance. They’ll still have to design and build the site and templates, so the initial cost won’t be reduced a lot. But that ongoing cost goes way down.

Like everything else technological, the next development products have to be quick and easy, otherwise people won’t go for it.