Now fast forward to the future. Imagine a Web site that would carry the full details of the planning application. Imagine that you could stop your neighbour by saying NO and clicking on the SUBMIT button. Now imagine my delight when on a recent trip to New York I heard from a friend that one of the local councils had introduced just that: an online consultation process for contesting planning permissions! In my language, that surely must be the "killer app" that will bring the Internet to the mass market.
American culture has grown around the goal of making life more efficient, allowing better management of an individual's time. The original personal computer killer app was a spreadsheet that allowed budding entrepreneurs to build various models of their business forecast by changing one number in a spreadsheet cell instead of having to waste hours on recalculating "what if your sales drop 4.3 per cent and the cost goes up by .09 per cent". That single application fuelled the explosion of interest in the PC, and led to today's ubiquity of office computers.
A week in NY has shown me that personal efficiency tools will drive Web use, and not pretty animated gifs on advertising Web sites. To give another example of what life is like in the fully wired zone, think about what eats up your time every day. The tediousness of dealing with your bank and keeping on top of the direct debits and reconciliations. The need to remember to pay your mobile telephone bill before you get cut off in the middle of an important business trip (as recently happened to me). Wouldn't it be bliss if they e-mailed me with a reminder, and allowed me to check and pay my bill online? All of these applications are already available in some US states, and by the end of the year they will be available across America.
The need to know and control my affairs from my laptop is not just a personal obsession. In my business I use an information management system that allows me to check real-time situations by a glance at my computer screen. I simply want the same quality of control in my personal life, and Americans have obviously understood this much earlier.
While in New York, a friend ordered a Federal Express van to send his VCR and computer to California. A nice young man from Fedex arrived, helped to pack the boxes, entered the serial number of the parcels into the system and voila!, we could watch the progress of the parcels every step of the way, from the van, to the airport, to arrival in Palo Alto and dispatch to his new home in Menlo Park.
E-mail notices that track your parcels are doubly effective, as they not only lower your anxiety level regarding the safety of your possessions but also let you plan to be at home when the stuff arrives, without Fedex needing to call and arrange delivery. Everybody saves time, and the business is booming.
At the top end of my online utopia for the UK I would add a new concept introduced by some US-based retailers. Online shops are also becoming sources of information by providing newsletters that give descriptions of the latest merchandise. Thus the shop takes on the role of educator, which saves me time that I would have to spend searching for a place where I can buy the new gear.
A good example is the online car broker Auto-By-Tel, where you can not only buy cars at ridiculous discounts but also get information about parts, new features, deals, etc. Top of the pops, though, must be E-Stamp, which allows you to buy postage through the Internet and print bar-code-like electronic stamps directly on envelopes and labels. In future, this will replace postage meters, cut down on postal fraud and give small businesses a new edge.
Step by step, these small but significant solutions add up to create a hassle-free business and personal environment, where I can use my brain in a creative manner instead of having to deal with irrelevant pieces of paper, the Kafkaesque bureaucracy of everyday life and the general inefficiencies of the offline environment. Shops, local councils, the Post Office - these are all legacy systems. We are finally free to cut loose and use our heads instead of legs to send a letter, pay the bill and buy stationery.
The UK is far behind our American cousins, but if all of us start putting pressure on retailers, service providers and government, we may join the online efficiency paradise this side of the 21st centuryn