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i-Technology Viewpoint: Thinking Outside the VC Box

Prior to the year 2000, business was a world in love with office spaces and corporate travel. We traveled to work (the office) every day. We traveled away from the office for customer meetings, for internal meetings, for conferences, for awards ceremonies. We traveled because we could and we believed that it was necessary for the competitive advantage. That all changed rather quickly with the economic downturn of the early 2000s and, of course, 9/11. In short order, we relearned how to do business by staying put.

Another consequence of the most recent recession was corporate payroll compression. As good corporate citizens who are mindful of keeping our jobs, most of us were tasked with far more work than a single individual could perform adequately. To help make us more efficient, we introduced cell phones so that we could make calls while traveling, and WiFi-enabled laptops that enabled us to take our work anywhere and exchange messages with anyone, provided a "hotspot" could found.

Conference calls, cell phones, and laptops have pushed personal multitasking to unparalleled levels. For example, workers are now able to process the relentless stream of e-mails and instant messages as well as review financial and marketing documents, all while supposedly being active during a conference call.

The preceding has been unsettling for some of us, but not so for others. In fact, for those who are able to do three things at once, it is a stress reliever. Prior to this work style, employees who were required to be physically at meetings (even on-site) would worry about e-mail that was piling up as well as a half-written product presentation due the next day. Stress would slowly build as the meeting drew long. The productiveness of a conference call definitely suffers because multitasking participants are only slightly paying attention. However, no matter - overall efficiency is increased for those who can draw the connections together and somehow manage to stay engaged in the "here and now" at the same time.

Consider where we've come from and where we've now arrived. Before we had limited ways to "connect." Now we can create multiple connections and converge them. Perhaps even more important, we can do much of this connecting and converging ourselves, without advanced degrees in IT or telecommunications, and using technologies that are available at the local shopping mall. Also, we can create our own virtual office spaces.

Building the Momentary Enterprise
Among the many consequences of connectivity and convergence that lead to the virtual office space is the momentary enterprise. The momentary enterprise takes advantage of an opportunity that may only exist for months. When it has been fully exploited, the momentary enterprise is reconfigured - Lego-like - to pursue another opportunity. A "pop-up" business model is born, thereby changing the competitive balance and leveraging pervasive data.

It is likely that in the coming years we will see sizable businesses (based on yearly revenue) come and go at what will seem to be alarming speeds. Businesses can now be created in a matter of weeks to capitalize on whatever important trend or market demand is surfacing. Huge amounts of venture capital in many cases will not be required for establishing the infrastructure, the billing and accounting systems, the transport or supply systems, the IT function - and the list goes on. Such commodities will be expertly and automatically leveraged by super-deep, business-to-business automation, and new enterprises will start up by focusing their energy on differentiating their value in the marketplace rather than creating and supporting all of the associated accoutrements. Also, the fact that their life spans will be measured in months or a short number of years will not be grounds for dismissal from Harvard Business School. A successful business model doesn't need to be measured by its staying power.

Interested? Below is a checklist of things that will help you on your way to the momentary enterprise.

Hybrid PDAs (Personal Communicators)
Hybrid PDAs combine three entirely different business and personal communication mechanisms (cell, e-mail, IM) into a single embraceable device. Their expected ubiquity will enable significant efficiency gains in both our business and personal lives. Hybrid PDAs offer three important features for momentary enterprise entrepreneurs:

The trend toward holding your electronic life in the palm of your hand started when cell phones were crossed with PDAs. The result was a cell phone that could also keep your calendar and your contact database. Next, text messaging was added, and then Internet access and e-mail. Furthermore, there appears to be no end in sight to the future versatility of these multifunctional, handheld devices. For example, NTT DoCoMo has introduced in Japan a cell phone with so many functions that one could get lost just trying to find them all. This unit will do the following: It also contains a specialized Sony-developed chip called a FeliCa chip or "smart card" that enables users to pay bills and make purchases over a wireless electronic banking system, operate appliances that can be controlled via a connection to the Internet, unlock doors, and the list goes on. Sooner or later, most of us will carry an intelligent device that is wirelessly connected to the world's vast data networks continuously.

XML
XML formatting allows proprietary databases and records to now have a nearly universal method for describing their contents. One does not need to be a sophisticated programmer who understands how to read a "schema" document or how to encode SQL statements to make sense of XML statements. A computer-literate teen could happen upon an XML fragment and derive some sense from it. He or she could likely import it into a favorite spreadsheet package and sort or average or trend it with a few keystrokes.

Business back ends are now XML-crazy. Information that needs to be expressed to another computer system is now expressed in some XML format. Most significantly, XML enables far higher business-to-business cooperation that is squarely aligned with the Web's chief goal: information exchange (as opposed to data exchange). XML has been enthusiastically embraced by business and allows for significant efficiency gains and better customer experiences. We will see XML reaching into the consumer world and our homes as well via wired and wireless appliances, for example. For the momentary enterprise, XML is the magic glue that allows vast sources of data and internetworking infrastructure - from PDAs to wireless video cameras - to share information.

Virtual Officeware (VOware) and RIAs
Currently, groupware is an effective collaboration tool used for large project management by equally large companies. For smaller companies, ad hoc usage of a shared file server often suffices. Small Web servers are also now used by more physically diverse groups.

Groupware, despite early hype, has remained somewhat hidden - deployed appropriately by those large multiregional companies, but avoided by the rest of the world. A trained administrator is usually needed to set it up, and typically it requires an additional capital investment in server and storage hardware and administration. Groupware also focuses heavily on managing shared document repositories, thus making it vulnerable to competing products with a broader vision.



Groupware is currently being replaced by a groupware-like application with far more functionality - such as VOware. Virtual office software was born as a result of our increasing work mobility and an increasing need for groups to work on projects jointly while spanning locations. Customers and suppliers outside the company can also be included.

Groove, recently acquired by Microsoft, is an example of virtual office software that combines the attributes of a shared file server, an instant messaging function, and project management tools (e.g., calendar and others). It can be deployed in minutes by users of the application themselves and does not require an investment in additional hardware.

VOware also adds a new level of "awareness" to communication. A bit like IM on steroids, VOware includes the concept of a "workspace" (i.e., a project) with group members, digital assets such as files, and tools such as whiteboard sharing and calendars and so forth. However, it is the combination of these elements that allows for a much deeper insight into what your fellow peers are doing without actually being in their presence. In fact, you can be more aware of what they are doing at any given time than you could if you were all working in the same office complex.

Another more advanced and still-emerging form of groupware is the Rich Internet Application (RIA). Some of the key critical components of RIA are:

There are a few companies today such as NexaWeb that offer RIA development environments for businesses to build rich, pervasive Internet applications.

Video Cameras and Webcams
The popularity of consumer digital cameras has driven down the price of their main components and the quality up. The key component of a digital camera of any type is the CCD element (the chip that actually "sees" a scene and turns it into a digital blip). The price of this component has dropped so low that high-resolution color video-capture devices can be built in to nearly anything. In parallel, wireless networking stormed through the computer industry over the same time period and resides naturally with video cameras. It is now trivial to litter an environment with video-capture devices because the costs and wiring complexity have been nearly eliminated.

These devices can be used to create virtual office environments as well as a new source of data for real-time business optimizations, including the observance of shoppers' buying habits, the tracking and inspecting products, and controlling automated manufacturing processes. Advances in image-processing algorithms now enable computing networks to actually understand scenes.

The Matrix Worker
We are all subject-matter experts in a particular area. Skills databases now exist that allow established companies to run even more successfully with far fewer full-time employees by matching the people skills readily available in the marketplace to specific project requirements. The amount of detail put into these databases is stunning. In the engineering world, for example, every skill and realm of knowledge that an engineer develops while working on a project is summarized within the database. It could be a new computer language such as C#, or mastery of a new Java library, or a new computer platform, or even the use of some end-user application such as an accounting package. These databases are a low-cost, high-value source of human capital, available now to the momentary enterprise. Often these people prefer to work as independent consultants rather than full-time employees. Technology and connectivity have truly allowed a great many of us to work anywhere and everywhere, and at any time. As more and more people allow their skills to be better published and exploited, a new form of professional - the "matrix worker" - will emerge.

VCs Need Not Apply
The ingredients for another wave of new companies are all around us - pervasively all around us. They include new wireless extensions of the wired network and the further exportation of technologies such as XML. All you have to do as an entrepreneur is glue them together to create new types of information that fill an identifiable need. In fact, new-company generation may be so easy to do that VCs may not be required. These new opportunities come about mostly from converging wireless with the Web and letting the imagination run free.

© 2008 SYS-CON Media Inc.