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Week's Clue: The New Web
Advertising Age group editor David Klein wrote a wonderful column recently that expressed satisfaction with the relative slow pace of change on the Internet lately. He hopes the idea of "Internet Years" may finally be over.
It's not. It's true that client technology has stabilized. No one cares about Navigator 5.0, and such "plug-in" technologies as push and streaming no longer generate big headlines. The exciting stuff is beneath the surface, on the server side, and change there is occurring as fast as ever.
The implications of this are enormous. The bar for competing online has been raised considerably. The operating cost of running a competitive site has also ratcheted upward. The underlying technology has become the basis for all academic, business and government computing - despite the frailty of current Internet standards. As the audience gets more sophisticated, it gets harder to excite them.
The first fact has caused investors to bid-up the price of current Internet leaders, in ignorance of the last three facts. Stability is not right around the corner. (Sorry, David.) Microsoft's Start doesn't look like much now, but its underlying algorithms will have a huge impact on the market starting this fall. The ability to highlight words and use them as search terms is an important breakthrough, with commercial as well as editorial implications. And the algorithms themselves need work - we don't need InfoSeek, we need InfoFind.
A second important trend can be seen in the latest Simmons CompPro study of corporate computer ownership, which I wrote-up for Business Marketing in a story that comes out today. Put simply, all God's chillun now have Web sites and Intranets. It won't take much for BestBuy, Sam Goody's, and every other record chain in the world (not to mention music labels) to compete with CDNow , N2K and Amazon . The rank stupidity of Borders and Barnes & Noble keeps the Internet-only players rocketing ahead, but stupidity isn't forever, and new players are entering the game. No lead is safe.
The Web in 1995 was like a pond. Now it's a bay, and it's becoming an ocean. Down below is a complex, rapidly changing ecology, one we're all a part of. If anything, the pace of evolution in this ecology is accelerating, not decelerating. Covering it is big, big fun.
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Oh boy, more work. Boardwatch Magazine will begin running a column from this reporter in September. I'm looking for details on the technology behind some of the most successful online stores. I'm also looking forward to publication of Kate Maddox' "Web Commerce," from John Wiley & Sons , on which I get a "with" credit. When Amazon gets it, of course we'll have a link.
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And now back to our show...
IDG's The Industry Standard has been in production for over a month now, long enough to reveal its view and its attitude. From what I can see, it sucks.
Oh, the design is snappy and some of the writing is first-rate. There are some talented reporters here. The problem is at the top. The attitude displayed by the top editors is a complete lack of skepticism concerning the current mania for Internet stocks, an unwillingness to cover "down-market" companies such as Link Exchange, and contempt for the "fly-over" people, those outside New York and San Francisco who don't participate in the mania.
This can be seen most clearly in a June 15 piece called "Academics Rebel Against an Online Future," by Todd Woody. The subject is the valid concern at some colleges that networks threaten site-based education. The news peg is a letter sent by 900 University of Washington professors to that state's governor. As far as he goes, Todd does OK. The art, however (chosen by the editors) is of a 1960s-era student protest, with anti-war kids sitting defiantly before gun-toting National Guardsmen. The message - the professors (and anyone else with these concerns) are Luddites who'll be swept-away because "everyone knows" the Internet is better for everything than anything else.
Bullshit. I've been working on a feature package covering just this subject, and the fact is nearly all major universities now have 10 Mbps access to campus-wide Intranets (and the Internet beyond), with Ethernet connections in every dorm and classroom. Online campuses, like the University of Phoenix and Western Governors University, are aimed at motivated professionals who are changing careers. Your kids are not about to replace their expensive lives on-campus with a Web connection, and you need not fear that, when you retire and want to return to lifelong learning, alma mater will have been replaced by a wire.
That's just one example. Failures of Internet technology in key markets like gaming are glossed-over, and the stories sold by losers like Paul Matteucci - branding parlor games - are treated like wisdom. All this would be harmless fun if weren't already being done (and done better) by such magazines as Red Herring and Upside. The problem is that when prices fall and businesses fail - as they inevitably do - this magazine has no future. And that's a shame. The Internet deserves a publication that will cover all its many businesses, their successes and failures, which will call a line a line and a pitch a pitch. That's the route to a long-term future.
Even at the present stage of the Internet Mania, by the way, "The Industry Standard" fits 22 ad pages around a 36-page editorial hole. (Only sales manager Cheryl Lucanegro knows if the prices are on the rate card, discounted or trade-outs.) My suggestion to the staff is to keep those resumes well oiled. (I never thought "Interactive Age" would go under, either.)
About one year ago I called Harry Motro clued-in, when the former CNN Interactive head took command at Infoseek, then a troubled search engine company. With his Disney deal two weeks ago, the world's now discovered him.
The deal sounds complicated, but essentially Disney's given Motro the keys to its online kingdom, and promised to buy him out later - the price depends on what he does with Starwave. Starwave, founded by Paul Allen, drew a whole lot of publicity but it was really a one-hit wonder. Attention's now focused on what Motro will do to juice-up ratings at ABCNews and the Daily Blast . I say that analysis misses the point.
Motro's been given a unique opportunity to create new online hits, to find synergy among apparently unrelated sites, and to prove that an online studio can be more than a pimple on the Magic Kingdom's balance sheet. It amazes me, for instance, that Disney books almost none of the tours for its own attractions. It's startling that the company has done almost nothing in such markets as education. And these are just top-of-the-head suggestions.
Few people in the industry have the in-depth knowledge of the Web (and its consumer possibilities) that Harry Motro has. He's spent the last year making sure his searching algorithms are more than competitive (see how they stack up here , and aggressively combating spamming of that engine. I'll repeat my clued-in appellation here - if Web content is to have a Gates, I'd call Harry Motro a prime candidate for the honor.
The mistakes are of the forest and trees variety. Analysts are looking at this result, projecting to the future of the present case, and figuring Microsoft will either win or finesse all claims. This would let it integrate the browser (and anything else) into Windows, taking over all other niches, the Internet, and the World.
Far more important, however, is what's already happened to Microsoft, what's happening now, and what will continue to happen as a result of this case. Reporters calling on stories get more and more grief from more and more flacks. Product managers deal more and more often with lawyers. And remember the government can always bring new cases, on different issues. The defense costs millions, settling costs more millions, and the underlying result is that (as with IBM a generation ago) questions of law and publicity overwhelm questions of engineering and marketing, which are the questions that really count.
A change in government won't stop this war. Senate Judiciary chairman Orrin Hatch is known as the "Senator from Novell." If Democrats re-take the panel in November, California Democrat Dianne Feinstein will be the "Senator from Sun." It is indeed like Gulliver and the Lilliputians. The opponents seem tiny and quarrelsome, but in time you go down.
Clued-in is Julie Wainwright, now of Reel.Com . She proved her mettle at Berkeley Systems (http://www.bezerk.com), pushing the "You Don't Know Jack" line of trivia games. Now she's launched an affiliation with Eonline with something completely innovative on the Internet - a sale. You can now reserve the video release of "Titanic" for $9.99, $20 off retail. Your Clue - price moves the merchandise and brings people in the door.
Clueless are investors who think combining monopolists AT&T and TCI creates a winning competitor. Both companies have steadily been losing market share, and talk about cable modems is just that, talk. (It will cost at least $2 billion to prepare TCI's network for the technology.) It will take new talent and a complete house cleaning of corporate cultures for this marriage to work.