What is an Internet desktop?
It's a user interface on your personal computer that replaces today's familiar icons and folders (Windows, Macintosh, Unix workstation, whatever) with an interface each user can customize with direct connections to Web content.
Such interfaces are on their way from both Microsoft and Netscape. Microsoft calls its effort the Active Desktop; Netscape calls its take on the idea WebTops. The two are the same in many ways, but have some important differences.
INFORMATION FROM ANYWHERE AT YOUR FINGERTIPS
Microsoft's Active Desktop, which is part of the company's Internet Explorer 4.0 browser, enables users to drag and drop HTML, ActiveX and other content directly into windows on their desktop. In addition, the entire desktop or any open folder can be represented as an HTML page full of links and interactive elements.
Netscape's WebTops, coming in the final version of Communicator and its NetCaster push client, is even more dramatic in its attempt to replace today's traditional desktop with HTML-based content. NetCaster lets specially constructed Web pages take over the entire user desktop and act as the interface to local and Web content.
In future versions, NetCaster WebTops will also store your data on the Internet, which will enable you to access your work and files from any computer with Web access.
Internet desktops put the user's focus on the information they need to do their jobs, wherever that information may reside. Whether it's in your hard drive, or out on the Web somewhere, it will appear to be just a click away on your computer screen.
LIVE NEWS, STOCK UPDATES
For instance, instead of the now-familiar screenful of icons that launch applications or documents, the Internet desktop could well feature live stock quotes or dynamic news windows -- all the sort of data you need to keep up-to-date and informed.
Or it could include a window with HTML links to important strategic information culled from theWeb or the company intranet, all constantly updated and ready to be accessed as soon as it becomes available. The intriguing opportunity for online marketers and content companies is that users will want to bring Web content to their desktops or even acquire entire, prebuilt Internet desktops from third parties. It's not hard to imagine a stock broker buying The Wall Street Journal desktop or even an ad agency reader buying Advertising Age desktop.
OFFER VALUE TO CUSTOMERS
Suddenly, online marketing will shift from trying to attract people to your Web site to trying to entice people to make your Web content or Web "channel" part of their desktop window to the Internet.
The upside: Marketers can gain a much more one-to-one, personalized relationship with customers.
The downside: Winning a place on the desktop becomes a much more expensive, time-consuming and cutthroat endeavor than today. While users may swallow their fair share of ads on free Web sites, they may not be so willing to accept marketing messages streaming onto their Internet desktop.
Psychologically, at least, the Web is out there somewhere, while the desktop is right here, literally on my desk. But if you can offer value in exchange for that spot on the desktop, your customer may invite you on board. Then you've won something very valuable indeed.
Richard Karpinski is editor at large for NetGuide Magazine and author of "Beyond HTML" from publisher Osborne/McGraw-Hill.