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The Pulpit
The Pulpit
Weekly Column

Bah, Humbug!: The All-Too-Real Limits of Internet Holiday Shopping

Status: [CLOSED]
By Robert X. Cringely

It was my intention this year, as a citizen of the cyberworld, to do all my holiday shopping on the Internet. It was going to be so easy, I thought, to sit at my keyboard with my credit cards fanned before me, and e-commerce the heck out of my 784 kilobit-per-second DSL connection. It would take an hour, I thought, or at most two, and Iwouldn't have to wrap or ship anything myself.

Well, that's not the way it worked out. Sure, I shopped on the Internet, but I actually did very little buying there. And the people at the Post Office know me well.

Here's what I learned from the experience. First, Internet shopping is much slower if you don't really know what you are shopping for. That is, Internet window shopping is hard to do. And the Internet can let you down, too, when you know precisely what you are shopping for — as in my case, where a significant someone asked specifically for Estee Lauder's White Linen perfume in the little dispenser for your purse, which is sold with an accompanying box of dusting powder. I found gallons of White Linen, but never with dusting powder. In this sense, I found online shopping to be remarkably like shopping at the Price Club.

The sad truth is that online shopping works really well only for commodities like books, videos, and CDs, and for comparison shopping on big-ticket items like cars. While Larry Ellison may buy his underwear on the Net, I bought most of my gifts at the mall.

But all that shopping and standing in line gave me a chance to do some real thinking about the Internet, itself, and I think I had a bit of a brainwave. I had an insight about one aspect of the Net, and that insight is my gift to you. Use this knowledge correctly, and it could make you rich.

I found myself thinking about Internet portal sites and what they are built from. Being a portal like Yahoo or Excite is something nearly every Internet business wants to do. It seems to be what made Netscape worth more than $4 billion to America Online. I think I figured out what it takes to build a good portal, which to this point has been something of a hit-or-miss proposition. I came up with an algorithm for the value-added services that make portals worth all that money. One of the secrets of being a successful portal is coming up with the next big value-added service before the other guys do. But I, at least, never before had a good definition of what those value-added services were intended to do. Now I do have such a definition, and it is darned useful.

It comes down to journalism, oddly enough. Budding reporters are taught to put in the first paragraph of their news stories answers to what are called "the five W's and an H" — who, what, why, where, when, and how. Well, these same terms also classify the logical components of an Internet portal. Thinking strictly in terms of these words, it suddenly becomes a lot easier to predict additional portal services.

"Who" is finding people. "What" is finding stuff. "Why" is a tricky one, but I guess we could call it finding knowledge. "Where" is mapping, URLs, and other location indicators. "When" is calendars and schedules. And "how" is the most interesting term. It's the verb that explains the means through which those "W"s are accomplished — by e-mailing, searching, online chatting, instant messaging, conferencing, the building of group calendars and more. The next big value-added service is an "H" that better defines a "W." I'd put my money on some technology that takes a better shot at answering "Why?" Perhaps it's a clever use of statistical analysis, accompanied, of course, by banner ads.

Your holiday assignment is to use my idea and become a zillionaire.

This insight became obvious to me as I was visiting the cleverly named Here's an outfit that has almost an entire "W" to itself. When's gig is calendars and their only competitor looks to be Webcal, which is now owned by Yahoo. Being owned by Yahoo is great for Webcal, but it essentially leaves the entire non-Yahoo world to because Yahoo won't want to sell technology to its competitors. is one of those great examples of experienced product development people sitting around thinking about what is likely to be the next great portal service. In the case of this outfit, the answer was so obvious and so powerful that received its venture funding less than three weeks after being incorporated and shipped their service less than five months after that. Compare this with my Internet startup, which is four years old and still hasn't had a dollar of revenue. I am such an idiot.

What does is keep your calendar. Become a member and their servers will hold for free and forever your calendar or the master calendar for your group or organization. Log-on from any workstation anywhere and there you have access to the next week, month, or year. And you can elect to paint atop your calendar what knows about happening in the rest of the world. They'll remind you about that 49ers football game or the opening of "Mighty Joe Young" at the multiplex. So is about events and reminders and because it's on the Internet, it is available equally to almost everyone who is willing to look at a banner ad.

The beauty of from a portal standpoint is that customers aren't likely to be finicky. Once they have all their dates and times in a particular calendar and are comfortable with the interface, there is a very big incentive not to move to another portal and abandon all that data. users are likely to be very loyal.

So I signed-up. The interface could still use some work to make it easier to input events, but all the right bits are there. I predict will be a big success, cutting deals with most of the bigger portals. After all, they've got a great name, and this time it's backed-up by a really good idea.

Enjoy the holiday. Next week is my monster column: "Hey, it's only 365 days until Y2K!" Rest up for it, and don't eat too much.

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