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Weekly Column

Dress for Success: The Fragile Relationship Between Technology and Commerce on the Internet, and a Final Y2K Update, Too

Status: [CLOSED]
By Robert X. Cringely

Merry e-Christmas! Last year, the concern on every pundit's mind was that there wasn't enough shopping being done on the World Wide Web. The Internet had been hyped for months and the results were disappointing. Was this it? A year later, and this is IT, with $7+ billion in online sales so far and IPO-funded e-commercials filling the airwaves. Now those same pundits, who seem to need something to complain about, decry the lack of new technology.

That's the way it works. Industries go through waves of introducing new technologies, then commercializing those technologies. Where a year or two ago, we were always thinking in terms of the promise of the Internet, this year we have the reality, and that reality wears a suit, not a white coat. Yet that bothers some people. Last week, it was a movie producer in Hollywood who told me how disappointed he was that the Internet business ideas he was hearing about were built around marketing ideas rather than quantum mechanics. That's why they call them, "business ideas."

Back in 1994, when I was talking with the original six founders of Excite about joining them in their garage, the big worry they had was about my PERL scripting skills. I argued that they should be more interested in my business skills, but those got short shrift. Five years later, it's very different: "It's been a long time since we did the development thing," said Graham Spencer, Excite's chief nerd, when I went to him not long ago with a hare-brained technical idea. For Excite, like Yahoo, AOL, or any of the other big companies, it is now about leveraging the technology they already own or can acquire from others.

And leverage is what this e-Christmas is all about. Save for Toys-R-Us, it seems to be going fairly well, precisely because systems have stabilized long enough for their inventors to turn their attention to making TV commercials and buying SUVs.

Then there is the whole issue of what "new" even means. Is the World Wide Web "new?" Probably not in the minds of most people. Is DSL networking technology "new?" Most people would say it is, except for the boys and girls at Bellcore (now Telcordia) and AT&T who invented DSL before Tim Berners-Lee even thought about building a World Wide Web. Big networking technologies just take a lot longer to bring to market.

So while we appear to be suffering from dueling business models more than dueling technologies, that is not at all bad or disappointing. Take Webvan versus as an example. It would be a mistake to think of this rivalry (it is a rivalry, a big one) like books versus groceries. Rather, it is a rivalry of local versus national distribution, and one of owning versus renting. Both and Webvan intend to be the next Wal-Mart, selling everything imaginable. Amazon sees economies of scale in having a few large distribution centers and leveraging traditional shippers. Webvan wants a distribution center in every city using its own trucks. That's the rivalry, and the Internet has almost nothing to do with it.

Which one will win? Well, there doesn't really have to be a loser in this, but has the advantage in the early going because it has far less infrastructure to buy and instantly grabs a national market. But if Webvan gets really, really big — big as Wal-Mart — it creams on economies of scale.

Often new technologies are not only of marginal importance, they are implemented for reasons other than what you might expect. Look, for example, at Yahoo's use of dynamically generated web pages, which are borne from a database rather than designed by a person. The beauty of this is supposed to be that the weather page will always have the correct temperature for International Falls, Minnesota, and the TV listing page will know what time it is. But Yahoo uses it for another reason. Rather than dynamically generated pages that have frequently changing information, Yahoo uses them for ALL pages, even those where the dynamic nature is not only wasted but it leads to a wasteful use of system and network resources. Why? Because it saves labor and, ultimately, saves money.

The big Internet companies are still exploring the business implications of the Web, itself, and hardly have the capacity to accept new technologies. That's what startups are for. So this year's accomplishment is just buying and selling, and next year's might be wide-scale IP telephony. Both are based on work that is a decade old. It takes at least 10 years for most new technologies to make it from the lab to widespread use.

But what does this have to do with Christmas? Not much, I suppose. I'm too preoccupied with the New Year to even think about Christmas. Remember that Y2K thing?

Here's an update on what's happening and what to expect. The last few weeks before Y2K have been wild according to large corporate users. First, Microsoft threw a MS/Office SR-2b upgrade at the world. Then an Excel Y2K bug (albeit a very minor one) was found. Microsoft's Outlook e-mail client is proving to be one of the most annoying non-Y2K-ready programs in existence. It can't be uninstalled, for one thing. It came shipped with Office 97, Internet Explorer, and Exchange though each has a different version of Outlook. There is no easy way to cleanly upgrade any version to a Y2K ready version. This is going to be trouble.

What's funny to me about this Microsoft/Y2K story is how smug they were earlier in the year, yet how quiet lately. Microsoft planned a special Y2K video to be available as a free rental at Blockbuster, yet that apparently sank from sight. Maybe they didn't know which story to tell.

The biggest Y2K concerns seem to be about data security, though, rather than the innate readiness of applications and systems. Apparently, there is a lot of concern that bad people are going to do bad things to our computers. Most of the security advisories going around discuss real and pretty serious opportunities to inflict damage on Windows. Why aim for a lesser target than the software that dominates the world of computing? Windows is like a hybrid crop that is genetically identical and equally vulnerable to hijinks. Some big corporate sites are worried enough about this that they are considering separating themselves completely from the Internet for the next couple weeks.

For most of the rest of us, it should be a minor annoyance at best. If things go kablooey, you'll see me on CNN. If they don't, I'll be home perfecting my eggnog recipe.

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