Al Gore still thinks this election is unfinished, but many more important things are truly unfinished on the Internet. It's up to We the People to finish them.
Those of us in Internet Commerce have been paying a fearsome price for this unfinished business over the last year, although much of the pain has been self-inflicted. We've paid for our unfinished fulfillment, for our poor merchandising, for our Clueless business plans and for mixing up fame with value. Many of us have paid with our businesses or careers.
I have no complaints about this, and neither should you. Without recessions, without failures, lessons aren't learned. Without recessions glib spiels succeed, while performance is ignored. There's no real virtue in a party, and there's no progress unless virtue is rewarded and the penalty paid for sloth.
So it's time to roll up our sleeves. Here's a brief to-do list:
SET - The problem in transacting business online today isn't the dishonesty of merchants, but dishonesty among customers. Merchants have no way of verifying identity, the way they do with a signed credit card receipt. SET promised identification and authentication (also useful in elections) but it hasn't been implemented.
Governance - This reminds me. Someone has to say "no" to organizations (like political campaigns) that expect to register a ton of .com addresses, or companies that think they should register every name they can think of. With no one in charge, speculators and hoarders have run roughshod over the market. The only solution is a cop on the beat. But a cop without legitimacy is just a guy (or gal) with a gun. A democratic governing system must be created so groups like ICANN can expect obedience.
Enforcement - Governments are instituted among men to stop crimes against society. We have an Internet society, and crimes are being committed against it every day - by spammers, by hackers, and by thieves . Yet the only methods we have for acting against such criminality is to resort to local enforcement. A world medium demands a world government. But that world government must only enforce laws agreed to by its citizens. The present enforcement effort against cybercrime is doomed if managed only by cops and spies. Questions of enforcement and governance, in other words, are tightly linked.
Democracy -- Here's the big, serious problem underlying all the rest. How can any enforcement action or system of governance work if it's not seen as legitimate? How do we go about creating such a system? Once this problem is properly addressed, mechanisms can be created for solving all the others. Until it is properly addressed, there is no such forum. As was said so memorably in the 1780s, we either hang together or we all hang separately.
The problems of the Internet are both great and small. You may have trouble getting broadband connections, and your Web site may be poorly designed. You may find financing impossible to come up with. Your time may be short and your bunions may hurt. These are the small problems. All the economic problems of today, in fact, are small problems.
The economic pause can be worthwhile, if it gives us the time to work on these big problems. However our system works, it does finally deliver us a government we mainly feel bound to support. There is no such legitimacy on the Internet.
It's time for a Constitutional Convention, the online version.
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Takes on the News
The Trouble With (and Solution For) eBooks
A lot of problems have been solved in the area of eBooks this year .
You can now take them to the bathroom. They can be back-lit so you can read them with the light off. Their capacity has grown, and channels are being established so you can buy eBooks readily, at prices lower than you would pay killing trees.
The new problem is simpler, and more prosaic. You can't scribble on the margins of an eBook. You can't highlight a few sentences if you're studying an eBook. In other words, you can't annotate an eBook. It's a read-only medium.
There are some other problems, of course. We need standards so any player will play any book. We need to replicate the library experience with eBooks, and the experience of sharing eBooks like real books. Copyright holders are reluctant to agree on that. But these are minor problems.
No, the big problem is annotation. Fix that one, and the rest of the problems fall of their own weight, especially as prices for paper and ink increase (as they must).
A Self-Syndication Solution
Brian Clark of GMD Studios in Orlando wrote recently to describe an answer to the technical problem of syndicating your own stuff (like the stuff found in this newsletter). His response was so cogent and well-written I had to wait until I could share the thing with you in full:
document.writeln("the HTML contents goes here");
You could even offer different content to different customers, using a CGI environment variable called the "referrer" -- which contains the URL of the page that called that script (i.e., the outside website.) "The CGI would simply compare that value against a 'known list of content partners,'" Clark concludes, returning nothing if the referrer wasn't on the list.
Technically, this is great stuff. Unfortunately, I've learned, the real problem in syndication is marketing, not technology. Convincing people to take your stuff - at any price - is the hurdle.
There is Nothing Like a Name
The marketing difficulties mentioned above are easily solved by anyone with a brand name. Attaching a brand name to new products lends them instant credibility.
To illustrate the point look at a recent deal signed between About.Com (being acquired by Primedia) and the Thomas Register . Thomas said it would provide its huge database of 168,000 manufacturers in more than 68,000 headings with over 1 million products to About's new b2b unit (http://industry.about.com).
Would this deal have happened without the Primedia agreement? Of course it wouldn't. About.Com could have banged on Thomas' door from now until Doomsday, it could have had all the success in the world, and Thomas would not have answered. Primedia's ownership, on the other hand, puts About.Com in the big leagues, giving it instant credibility among other publishers. It's now part of the club.
Thus do bad deals turn into good deals...you don't have to be lucky or smart, just rich and powerful. (That's not a criticism, just a statement of fact.)
Clued-in are both Intuit and InsWeb for their $16 million merger agreement . InsWeb was getting no traction on its own while Intuit badly needed a property that had a chance. It may not work, but business is about assuming risk, and this looks like a risk worth taking.
Clueless is AOL's Netscape Version 6. It's late, it's busy, it's feature-packed (meaning it's big) and it's too tightly-focused on AOL products like Instant Messenger (meaning it's no different or better than Internet Explorer). Google proved there was still room in the search engine business. This release proves there may still be room in the browser business. Give me something that's simple, but keeps up with new file formats, and you can still get my loyalty.
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