The Internet has been transformed beyond what anyone could have foreseen thirty years ago. The Internet has become ubiquitous and unavoidable. It’s no longer just an icon on a personal computer—it’s everywhere. Gertrude Stein made a famous comment, “The problem with Oakland, California is that there’s no there, there.” Like Oakland, the Internet has no center. There is no way to pinpoint its place; it is everywhere.
Internet-supported customer relationship activities are emerging as one of the fastest growing areas of Web use. Customers are moving from the call center to Internet interactive channels because of the higher degree of control and accessibility these channels provide. As Internet terminals for general use are becoming more common, your customers will have greater opportunities for interaction.
A recent study by market-analysis firm Datamonitor reveals that Internet access is spreading like a virus through European retail establishments. Stand-alone Internet terminals are appearing in locations such as bars, caf s, telephone boxes, and gas stations. BP’s British gas stations plan to provide consumers with the chance to check out Internet information during the short window of time spent filling the tank. BP is betting that during the two minutes it takes to fill up you would rather log on than stare at the pump ticker or other patrons.
It’s not just a European phenomenon. At Schlotzsky’s Deli, the Austin, Texas–based fast food chain, customers can surf the Net in one of its new cyber delis while they savor their muffuletta-style sandwich with a side of salt and vinegar chips.
In Boston, entrepreneur Eric Bobby has instituted a campaign to expand access to retail services and the Internet for a large and underserved market—the nation’s inner cities. His product, known as CityKi, hopes to give Web access to people who ordinarily wouldn’t have it. Bobby is seeking to address the dearth of physical stores in inner-city neighborhoods by providing consumers with broadband access to selected merchants, service providers, financial institutions, government agencies, and community generated content. The Initiative for a Competitive Inner City (ICIC) estimates that inner-city neighborhoods represent nearly 8 million households, or approximately 12 percent of total U.S. households, and that the inner-city retail market in the United States is worth about $90 billion. But this is more than just e-commerce. With CityKi customers can set up and access their own personal e-mail accounts at the kiosk.
As of early 2002, about twenty companies are featured online at the CityKi kiosk. They include eBags, Staples, PETsMART, Proflowers .com, Amazon.com, Toys “R” Us, Target, Best Buy, Dell Computers, Tower Records, Barnes & Noble, and Overstock.com. Because of such initiatives, companies can reach people who wouldn’t ordinarily have access to computers at home or even at work.
Research from Analysys predicts that 21 million people in the United States will be using public wireless local area networks (WLANs) in 2007. Analysys estimates that the use of public WLANs will generate over $3 billion in service revenue by 2007.
As part of its report “Public Wireless LAN Access: U.S. Market Forecasts 2002–2007,” Analysys finds hotels currently dominate the public WLAN scene providing roughly 1.67 million access locations in the country. However, Analysys believes that by 2007, restaurants and cafes will provide roughly 14.18 million access locations, surpassing the amount provided by hotels (10.35 million).
This ubiquity of the Internet will be dizzying. Douglas McWirter, the writer who first reviewed the Datamonitor study calls it sensory overload, “Think of the Internet as a strobe light at a dance club. At first it seems cool, but after a few minutes it makes you dizzy and gives you a headache.” He asks, “Does anyone really need to be connected this much?” A better question might be, what will this ever-present customer access mean for customer relationships?
Just how up-close and personal are we talking? Consider this. To speed the process of meeting and greeting at the Internet Everywhere CEO Summit 2000, a company called Charmed.com gave away boxes that attendees could hang around their necks to swap contact information with one another just by standing in front of each other and chatting. These “badge boxes,” put together from boxes of Altoids Mints bought at the local Sam’s Club, enabled hands-free, no-hassle schmoozing. These were no ordinary Altoid boxes. Charmed _.com had transformed them into wireless interactive communication devices that allowed participants to share information. The boxes exemplified the kind of immersive Internet experience those at the conference were seeking to build in the future.
Others at the Summit added their comments. Science-fiction writer Gregory Benford said, “Comfy culture will be the end result of putting the Internet everywhere. IP-enabled devices will eventually care for the inhabitants of the industrialized world, making everyday activities like shopping or walking down the street into personalized experiences.”
It will also make civilization an increasingly familiar place, said science-fiction writer David Brin, author of The Transparent Society (Perseus Publishing, 1999). He said the ability to use Internet devices to call up information on anyone, anywhere as users travel will recreate small villages—where everyone knows everybody else by reputation—like most inhabitants of villages hundreds of years ago.
Professor Alex Pentland, academic head of MIT Media Laboratory, predicts that the technical infrastructure will be with us in the clothes we wear and on the products we buy. He said, “We see the technology ‘on the person.’” He showed a slide of a student who had developed eyeglasses that allow the wearer to call up information as he looks at the world around him. While others converse with him, the wearer can look up the backgrounds of those he talks with, or pull up Web pages related to the conversation.
Add to this ubiquity the fact that e-mail isn’t waiting anymore for people to boot up their PCs. More people, every day, are taking advantage of wireless technology. Microsoft is moving closer to realizing its Net vision of ubiquitous access to Web-based content and services with the next version of its Windows CE operating system, designed to provide support for the delivery of Web-based services and content to mobile devices.
In February 2002 IBM Research announced the building of a computer the size of a stack of index cards. Although it has no plans to market the device, IBM is testing the three-inch wide, five-inch long, three-quarters of an inch thick machine to find out how people will react when they can carry their PC with them everywhere they go. Users will be expected to customize the machine to fit their needs. The device can be transformed into a handheld, desktop, laptop, tablet, or wearable computer in seconds without having to be rebooted. IBM plans to build about 100 of the devices and loan them to various customers in a number of different industries and see how people’s use changes when they have a full PC with them all the time.
 “Schlotzsky’s Gets Serious About Customer Technology,” Stores, February 2002, p. 44.
 “Kiosk Project Targets Inner Cities’ Online Needs,” Stores, February 2002, p. 38.
 “Wireless LAN Provide Net Access,” BizReport, February 13, 2002, p. 1.
Douglas McWirter, “Here, There and Everywhere,” crm.com, December 7, 2001, p. 2.
Brian Caulfield, “A Glimpse Into Our Future, When the Net is Everywhere,” Reporter’s Notebook, April 1, 2000, p. 1.
Ibid., p. 1.
Ibid., p. 3.
 “Update: IBM Deals a Card-Size Computer,” computerworld.com, February 7, 2002, p. 1.