Consumer use of the World Wide Web is growing to such an extent that 'Net access for all will be an issue in the US presidential campaign by 2004, if not before, according to John Chambers, president and CEO of Cisco Systems.
Speaking at the CeBIT exhibition here today, Chambers predicted that home use, and specifically consumer devices attached to the Internet, would drive future Internet growth in what he defined as the Internet's "third phase" or the "consumer phase."
Home networking, which will connect refrigerators, microwaves, pianos, stereos and all manner of devices to the Internet, is going to be a reality very soon, Chambers said. In fact, PCs will be the minority device for Internet access in just a few years, he added.
In his speech, during which he walked up and down the aisles of the auditorium preaching his vision of the connected home, Chambers also boasted of Cisco's emergence as a force in the formation of the Internet economy. Once Cisco had difficulty gaining access to its customer's top IS management, but today Chambers meets routinely with government leaders and the heads of the world's largest companies.
"Three years we couldn't even meet with CIOs," he said. "Half of my visits on this trip [to Europe] were with presidents of large companies." Chambers' name-dropping included leaders of China and Singapore, who, he said, now understand the competitive benefits of the Internet.
"The most exciting thing the Internet brings is leveling the playing ground between large and small companies," said Chambers, pointing to the ability of Chinese companies to compete with enterprises in the U.S. and Europe via electronic commerce.
Cisco pointed to Autobytel (http://www.autobytel.com/), the online car selling site, as an example of how the small players are revolutionizing retail channels. "I bought my first car over the Internet just a few months ago," said Chambers, who described the ease of selecting the car online.
Cisco's own e-commerce program, in which its customers order its products online, accounted for one-third of the world's e-commerce in 1997, said Chambers. "It saves us a lot of money, and more importantly, customers prefer it." Currently, 55 percent of all employment applications to Cisco come in over the Internet, he said.
Analyst predictions about the growth of the Internet are extremely conservative, said Chambers, who based his statement on Cisco's own e-commerce growth. Driving the predicted radical growth will be a proliferation of connected consumer devices. Those devices, he said, will either be very cheap and very simple, or expensive and complex.
A complex example might include a device that could monitor a heart patient, sending messages via the Internet to his doctor and hospital and dispatch an ambulance to his house before he even knows he's having a heart attack, said Chambers. "But we haven't figured out how to prevent scaring him," said Chambers.
Also important will be widespread or near-universal Internet access in the home. Cisco is "agnostic" about whether that access will come via ADSL (asymmetric digital subscriber line), cable modems, ISDN or wireless technologies, said Chambers, saying Cisco will partner with makers of all types of devices and telecommunication providers.