Sunday, September 21, 2008

The democratization of data

The Internet has had an enormous impact on people's lives around the world in the ten years since Google's founding. It has changed politics, entertainment, culture, business, health care, the environment and just about every other topic you can think of. Which got us to thinking, what's going to happen in the next ten years? How will this phenomenal technology evolve, how will we adapt, and (more importantly) how will it adapt to us? We asked ten of our top experts this very question, and during September (our 10th anniversary month) we are presenting their responses. As computer scientist Alan Kay has famously observed, the best way to predict the future is to invent it, so we will be doing our best to make good on our experts' words every day. - Karen Wickre and Alan Eagle, series editors

Information technology has enabled the "democratization of data:" information that once was available to only a select few is now available to everyone. This is particularly true for small businesses.

Fifteen years ago, only the big retailers could afford intelligent cash registers that tracked inventory and produced detailed daily reports. Nowadays cash registers are just PCs with a different user interface, and the smallest mom and pop retailer can track sales and inventory on a daily basis.

A decade ago, only the big multinational corporations could afford systems to allow for international calling, videoconferencing, and document sharing. Now startups with a handful of people can use voice over IP, video, wikis and Google Docs to share information. These technological advances have led to the rise of "micro multinationals" which can leverage creativity and talent across the globe. Even tiny companies can now have a worldwide reach.

These changes will have a profound effect on the global economy. According to the U.S. Small Business Administration, "small businesses represent 99.7 percent of all firms, they create more than half of the private nonfarm gross domestic product, and they create 60 to 80 percent of the net new jobs." Information technology has already had a huge effect on the productivity of large businesses, but the benefits from "trickle down productivity" may be even more significant.

We think that Google can play a significant role in helping small businesses utilize the power of information technology. Our search technology provides answers to questions that only companies with large research libraries could answer decades ago. Our advertising programs allow small business to sell their wares to consumers around the world, as well as providing revenue opportunities for small publishers. Google Docs provides productivity tools for remote collaboration.

Google also provides data for business intelligence that only large companies were able to afford a few years ago. For example, Google Trends can help businesses track the popularity of specific queries, enabling them to identify new business opportunities. Website Optimizer allows businesses to test different versions of a website to see which one works best. Rather than waiting a month for a sales report, businesses can instantly learn of spikes in traffic to their website using Trends for Websites. All these services are available for free, allowing even the smallest businesses to make use of these tools.

Technology available to large firms has traditionally trickled down to smaller enterprises, making it relatively easy to forecast the sorts of capabilities will become available to small businesses in the future. We just have to ask: what can big companies do now that small companies can't currently afford?
  • Today, only the largest companies can afford to hire consultants and experts. In the future, even small companies will be able to purchase on-demand expertise and other services via the Internet.
  • Today, marketing intelligence are costly reports describing data many months or years old. In the future, small businesses will have access to real-time data on market conditions.
  • Today, only the largest companies can run expensive experiments with their advertising campaigns. In the future, even small business will be able to run carefully controlled marketing experiments that will enable them to better reach their potential customers.
  • Today, only large companies can sell products in many countries. Tomorrow, businesses of any size can use online services and outsourced logistics to buy and sell in every corner of the globe.
Google will be a part of this global economy, helping both large and small companies to grow their markets and manage their information. Exciting times are ahead!

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