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Seize the moment Featured

9:34am EDT July 22, 2002

Remember when the fastest modem connection was 4,800 baud, most messages were faxed and only academic and government people used the Internet on a regular basis?

That was only 10 years ago, yet most of us can't imagine conducting business without the Internet, e-mail and 56K of transmission power or cable connections today.

Microsoft played an important and revolutionary role in changing the way people and businesses interact with the Internet. The company's original vision -- a vision it still maintains -- was "Information at your fingertips," allowing you to access any information whenever you wanted and from whatever device. Thanks to Microsoft's innovative spirit, change is under way once again.

Robert Herbold, chief operating officer and executive vice president of Microsoft Corp., recently shared the company's continued vision for the next-generation Internet with SBN. He was in Pittsburgh to address a Pittsburgh Technology Council-hosted audience about the issue.

Imagine changing a file on your pocket PC and having that file instantly available on your desktop without ever plugging one device into the other. Imagine inputting your data via handwriting, speech and vision technology without ever typing on a keyboard. The goals of these new applications are increased productivity, instant accessibility to your information and efficient functionality.

The new Microsoft .NET platform is expected to facilitate new experiences with integrated privacy and security capabilities, make computing and communicating easier and put you back in control.

FreeMarkets Inc., the leading B2B e-marketplace based in Pittsburgh, wants to marry the best thinking with the "best in breed" hardware and software, according to David Becker, president and CEO. This includes Microsoft's .NET platform, Windows 2000 Datacenter Server and Visual Studio developer tools.

"It's a much different ballgame now," Becker says. "We must handle growth, and that's hard without the right knowledge and partners."

In a move even Orson Welles never imagined, the .NET platform is expected to fundamentally change how computers interact with other high-tech devices, as well as how computers interact with people. For businesses of all sizes, this next generation Internet means unified browsing, coordinated communication, "a seamless mobile experience" and powerful information management.

Microsoft intends to unleash the "full potential of the Internet" and make the Web an environment all people can use and enjoy.

Here's what Herbold had to say about the future of the Internet and e-business.

SBN: What is the next-generation Internet?

Herbold: It's all about more interoperability between devices and applications with more natural language. We have a vision about empowering people with much friendlier user interfaces.

There has been a Web evolution over the past 20 years. First was the terminal mainframe, then the DOS-driven PC to a graphic interface that is Windows. Today, we have the second generation and the positives are that the Net really does represent global connectivity. We can pull organizations and processes together but we are at the early stages of this phenomenon.

One major weakness is that the Web is a read-only environment; there are too many islands, and it is difficult to navigate. Technology companies are giving this issue a lot of attention.

In your opinion, are growing companies prepared for the future?

Virtually all companies today are aware of the Web's enormous capability about global connectivity and are hustling to take advantage of opportunities to run more efficiently. It's a matter of sheer competitiveness to provide up-to-date information to customers. The Internet is a read-only environment, which is tough to bridge, and the overall strategy of Microsoft.Net intends to tackle those issues.

If you are writing an application that requires a bunch of financial indicators, you can go to the Web site where the information is and write it directly into the application. The end user doesn't know the application is pulling up-to-date information right off the Web. It's information when you want it.

People want synchronization, so servers need to be smarter. These technologies will now coordinate your cell phone with your pocket PC and with your desktop, and the server manages all of that.

How can smaller companies get prepared for e-business in the future?

From the standpoint of any industry you're in, you have competitors, and they will look at easier ways to pass information to suppliers and up-to-date information to customers. People today are jumping on these technologies.

Look at the '70s and '80s compared to today. This is an exciting time to be in this industry. We should all seize the moment.

In Pittsburgh, many companies still don't use the Internet at all, let alone for doing business. How will this harm their future success and profit potential?

Pittsburgh is quite typical. You find the full spectrum here, as in many communities. What's great about the free enterprise system is that it works. Companies looking to be more effective and spend less money can operate more efficiently. Virtually every company needs to investigate these things.

Any organization that isn't working at procurement is missing a bet. Look at FreeMarkets' cost advantage to customers -- over $1 billion. Other companies see that and say, 'Why aren't we getting our fair share of those savings?'

What are your prognostications on how this new way of doing e-business will affect growing companies?

It will enable companies to operate more effectively than before. It's so impressive that Alan Greenspan said to the Commerce Committee that the economic boom we are experiencing is because of information -- that technology is the cornerstone of the incredible profit improvements experienced by many companies in many industries.

Everybody needs to revisit their basic business design. These new products will have an impact on productivity. Amanda Lynch is a Pittsburgh-based free-lance writer.