A Clue..to Internet Commerce

by Dana Blankenhorn

For the Week of April 21, 1997

Volume 1, No. VIII

This Week's Clue: When Push Comes To Shove

Listening to Marc Andreesen and his media industry buddies discuss Netscape's new Netcaster and WebTop capabilities (courtesy of configuration files or Marimba Castanet ) last week, I couldn't help thinking they were missing the point.

The Web's all about disintermediation, right? Get rid of the middleman. So why are Time-Warner, NBC and ABC acting like Spain and Portugal carving up the New World? Maybe it's the Channel Finder, which causes visions of bandwidth scarcity a la local TV. But could they be....Clueless?

You betcha, by golly. Because if the idea is electronic commerce, the media's the middleman! The ends are buying and selling, not reading. Consider these business plans...be glad to help when you're ready (SSP):

THE FRY'S CHANNEL -- Push specials and computer news relevant to the inventory. Offer "all-nighter" packs of sodas, video games, snacks and dirty magazines, ready for delivery within the area today or anywhere tomorrow. License Dilbert, HotWired, maybe a few C|Net pieces where appropriate, interface your database with the Web, load some customized forms on the clients and voila!

THE STAPLES CHANNEL -- Maintain a list of supplies your office uses, which you can check-off when you get low. Get delivery at set intervals, on demand, or when the bill gets high enough to avoid delivery charges. Add content for office managers -- supposedly useful articles so the bosses won't notice, plus raunchy jokes about engineers, salesmen, and bosses in general. License Cathy, Comedy Central's "The Daily Show," Cosmopolitan, anything worth a giggle from she at the front desk.

The trick is, of course, to build a channel, or WebTop, around an attitude, a targeted market demographic, a valid commercial service or business niche central to a *specific* person. Small numbers bring big returns. Investment outfits like Schwab are already closing-in on this, licensing stock quotes and corporate news to go along with stock and bond trading services.

Sure, CNNfn, which is backing Netscape WebTops, and the Wall Street Journal , which just put up a channel on PointCast, imagine "journalistic credibility" will win the day. It will. But that doesn't mean media brands must win, instead of the store I trust. Credibility must be earned, and merchants can provide more WebTop value than a mere newspaper can.

Listen closely to Andreesen on creating "channels" -- "It's very lightweight, and we'll provide style sheets and templates...all Web content should come up." And WebTops "can be created by anyone who creates a Web page." He who wins will be he (or she) who has value. That means commercial value, the curious mix of entertainment, information, and buying convenience which every consumer will define for themselves.

And Another Thing...

Much WAGOT (wailing and gnashing of teeth) is going on about Dynamic HTML incompatability between Netscape and Microsoft. Jesse Berst of ZDNet is loudest on this point, but others are joining the chorus, which goes like this. Netcaster doesn't follow the Channel Definition Format (CDF) Microsoft and PointCast are using for push products. The two companies are implementing Dynamic HTML (insertion of programs onto Web pages) in different ways. We'll have to write different pages for Netscape and Microsoft browsers. Etc. Etc.

The concern is valid, but here's a prediction -- it will work itself out. Netscape officials tried to be very clear on this point at their news conference, predicting agreements within months, about the time Netscape 4.0 and Internet Explorer 4.0 are due to emerge from beta. I predict they're right.

This is like Republicans and Democratic budget squabbling. It's posturing. Remember that you, and I, are the final arbiters. If they don't work it out, we won't upgrade, and neither side wins. Certainly reporters have to cover it, and warn of dire consequences if no agreement is reached. And maybe the agreement will come after final software ships. (Netscape's in July, Microsoft's probably in September.) But not long after. Current software works, there's a huge installed base, and the same "upgrade resistance" found in Windows and NetWare is starting to take hold. We don't need the latest-and-greatest. We won't buy it unless it's compatible. Remember that and relax.

SSP (Shameless Self-Promotion)

Journalism -- checking the news, calling people, listening carefully, writing on deadline -- is how I keep these clues coming, although I also handle consulting and commercial writing (ask about those rates via e-mail). My latest project is a column for Atlanta Computer Currents , which will start soon. I also have drawn new assignments from AdAge's NetMarketing supplement and Business Marketing magazines. Now back to the show...

A Visit to Wal-Mart

Wal-Mart was one of the first really-big companies to buy Microsoft's pitch for its Merchant Server and NT. The site was due up last fall, but came up in Microsoft Time. (That's the opposite of "Web-time," at least 6 months late... sometimes years. ) Still, when we got a press release saying the thing was open, we clicked by. After all, Wal-Mart and Microsoft should make a dominant combination -- shouldn't they?

The original concept for Wal-Mart Online was ambitious, with separate sites for the main store and Sam's Club warehouse operation. In the new version, Sam's is out. Instead there's a database of "selections," and some seasonal specials -- "Mothers Day Bouquets" are about $30. Most internal links don't work, however, especially those to corporate information. Here's something funny for online veterans -- the customer service address is cserve@wal-mart.com.

But you can get a hint at what's coming, in time. There's a search button, so you can find a specific item. The site makes heavy use of frames. It's completely database driven -- even paging through headings like "Pentium computers" brings up one of those phony database-driven URLs. And the prices -- they want $3,100 for a Compaq Desktop Pentium 75 with 16 megabytes of memory and a 1 Gbyte disk drive! (Yeah, right.) The only thing that's close to a bargain is the $6 Wal-Mart Online t-shirt, available in large and extra-large only. (Want a clue? Night-shirt sizes!)

Now, there are some clever things these guys could do, if they had A Clue. I want a greeter...a nice old guy (or gal) in a blue vest who can tell me the specials each day, get me a cart, offer help, tickle my kids, and answer questions in RealAudio. I want to put my Sam's Club list into a form which I can pick from, as-needed, then have what I need delivered every week, at no extra charge for orders of $100. And I want low, low Wal-Mart prices, which (so far) I'm not getting. And that huge selection Wal-Mart is famous for. Give me that and I'll buy. Don't, and I'll drive. Maybe to Wal-Mart, maybe to Sam's Club...more likely to Costco. (A Clue for those who still think Wal-Mart is hot -- Sam Walton is still dead. And the guy who's running the store is the same idiot who's running the Kansas City Royals. 'Nuff said.)

The biggest problem -- one endemic to all large merchants -- is a lack of links. They don't want to link out for fear of losing the customer. And they lack the clues to link-in. Rivals thus have a secret weapon -- search engines like BuyItOnline. For Mothers' Day my mom would like the steak-and-lobster dinner -- four half-pound lobster tails and filet mignons for $110, so she can get my siblings to visit and bring their kids. Your mom's different -- BuyIt now has 10,000 merchants linked to its site. Disney's one -- Wal-Mart's not.

Our conclusion -- Microsoft was anxious to keep this account and threw something (anything) into an Access database, painted some bells-and-whistles on it and got it online so the client could put out a press release. Anyone who writes this is the way of retailing's future, anyone who claims small Web merchants should be quaking in their tassled loafers because big ol' Wal-Mart and Microsoft are gonna get 'em -- clueless. At least this year.

Revenge of the Suits

Time said last week Bruce Judson has resigned as general manager, to pursue "Internet-related entrepreneurial opportunities" -- he's going to a start-up. This leaves Time editor Norman Pearlstine in charge of the most clueless site in cyberspace.

While Time claimed to be clued-in last week by signing a Netcasting channel, anyone can do that. The smart move would be to move-up someone like Scott Woelfel from CNN , which runs decent sites with a hope of making money (someday). Won't happen. Time's plan is to emasculate Ted Turner by launching new ventures, like CNNfn and CNNsi, from New York, where the suits can control. Control by the suits means more to Time Inc. chairman Gerry Levin than anything, even a profit for shareholders. By the time poor Ted figures that out, he'll be bled dry. A pity.


Clued-in this week is Jesse Berst , formerly of Windows Watcher newsletter, now with ZD's AnchorDesk. I don't usually tout fellow journalists, especially competitors, but Jesse's been smarter-than-the-average-bear for a long, long time now. It's good to see Ziff-Davis put him where he belongs, in front of a large audience, following the trends and doing his thing. Usually when someone's promoted like this the publisher wants to stick their square peg into a round hole -- hands-on management or distant sage. And while I may disagree with him sometimes (see And Another Thing above) at least he's asking the right questions, and offering sound warnings. John Dvorak's successor is here.

Clueless this week is Sitcom2000 , a new site which brings the lame TV sitcom formula, warts and all, to the Web . Video files which take forever to download and run, scripts no better than on what my kids call the UPN and Wc. Even MSN has figured out how lame this is, and they pre-load the needed plug-ins! All together now...it's not publishing, and it's not broadcasting. It's the Web, its own self.

A Clue...to Internet Commerce is a weekly publication of @Have Modem, Will Travel. It's sent free to a qualified e-mail list. Like Netscape Navigator, it carries a list price -- $49 per year. Subscribers can receive either a .txt file or an .htm file. The .htm version features links which become active when online with a browser, or an e-mail package like Netscape 3.0. (Let us know which you prefer.) To take your name off the list, simply write REMOVE as the subject, or content, of a message replying to this post. To request your free copy, write us at Dana Blankenhorn@worldnet.att.net. We're on the Web at www.tbass.com/clue and www.ppn.org/clue .

A Clue...to Internet Commerce -- Copyright @Have Modem, Will Travel and Dana Blankenhorn, 1997