The Internet World was caught between paradigms. For some of the 192 exhibitors at Mecklermedia's Spring Internet World '95 conference and exhibition, this was just another chance to set up booths and show off new-and-improved hardware, software, and information products -- the nuts and bolts of technological determinism. For others who want to capitalize on this technology, it was a chance to furiously hammer down stakes and establish territory in a frontier whose boundaries are limited by server space and access to phone lines.
Yep, the rush is on to settle the World Wide Web. But this time gold is in the form of e-cash and territory is determined by the number of sales or the number of subscribers. If this description seems to drip with cliches, pull up a chair, take a load off, and link to conference participant WagerNet.
Welcome to the commodified Web where no zoning requirements exist and anyone can settle. The singular bandwagon has been replaced by caravans, and possibly the most telling aspect of this gold rush mentality are the number of exhibitors and attendees at the spring show. Last year's show attracted 67 exhibitors who used 6,800 square feet of space to show their wares to roughly 7,000 attendees. This year, the 192 exhibitors took up a 41,000 square foot exhibition area. The number of attendees? 27,101 at the final count, according to Barry Schwartz, president of the New York firm Schwartz Public Relations and Associates that handles public relations for Mecklermedia.
"We weren't expecting that many (attendees)," Schwartz said during a post-conference interview. "Even with optimistic forecasts we expected between 15,000 and 18,000."
Granted, the numbers may seem a little shocking, but what's more surprising are some of the newcomers to what its organizers dub "the world's largest Internet and World Wide Web conference and exhibition." Making first time appearances were IBM, Microsoft, Silicon Graphics, and Sun Microsystems. In just three years, the Internet World conference has gone from being an event where hardware manufactuers and librarians network to a mega-event where major players in the computer world cyberschmooze.
Alas, it goes without saying that the growing interest in the World Wide Web was the deciding factor in the popularity of this year's conference. Since the conference serves as a bellweather for what's happening on the Net, what does the conference tell us? A lot that we already know. With vast reserves of untapped marketing and sales potential on the Web, major technology business players are forming coalitions in a lemming-like frenzy and small businesses are tailoring their products and services to Web users and those who desire a Web presence.
But what's prompting all of this activity? Several factors.
According to Internet "old timer" and Yahoo co-creator, Jerry Yang many businesses perceive that the Web holds an extensive marketing capability. "People in certain types of businesses think that if they're not on the Web, they're going to be at a disadvantage," he said. Computer companies for one embrace the Internet as a place to mass market goods. Darryl Peck, former president of Inline Software and founder of the Cyberian Outpost, which opened May 1, points out that this particularly holds true for software and hardware businesses. "The Internet for any computer-related company is a gold mine." How else could a business so easily reach 15 million people to sell their goods, he rhetorically noted.
In addition, since HTML has a short learning curve, people outside of the computer industry develop pages with relative ease, thus rapidly-expanding the content on the Web. "Creating Web pages isn't rocket science," Peck said. "It can take 100s of good man years to create good software but one week to set up a good Web site."
But the deciding factor is money. When compared to other information mediums, a Web page is inexpensive to set up and maintain. This fact, in combination with the potential of a page to "reach" millions of users, makes creating one worth the effort, Yang said. "At least that's the sense I get."
While businesses see the Web as a wave of the future, the medium still is in its formative stage. So formative that people working out of their proverbial garages can develop a successful product. "That's part of what all of the excitement is about," said Yang, a Ph.D. student at Stanford. "It's a level playing field." The negative aspect of this is that a lot of less-than-professional work has appeared on, and because of, the Web. But this is due to the number of people creating sites, he said. "You tend to get some garbage because you have a lot of people who think they can do anything on line whether it be publishing or selling t-shirts. ...It's the law of averages and the law of mediocrity."
The lack of definition for the medium also means that small business owners, such as Yang and his partner David Filo, can still make ground breaking decisions that will certainly affect the increasingly commercialized medium. While the there are no immediate plans to seek advertising, Yang said the highly-used Yahoo list needs to incorporate ads at some point to sustain the list in the long run. Right now the options seem limited: charge advertisers or charge subscribers. Both owners are against charging subscribers and undecided on how to incorporate advertisements, Yang said. But this is an issue he and Filo will consider in the next several months.
Given the lack of business standards on the Web, and the frenzy among big businesses to create them, what will it take to maintain a successful Web business in the long-run? Peck thinks this is contingent on several factors -- the first being a not-frequently-mentioned understanding of Internet protocol. This is important to avoid "stepping on any toes," noted Peck who has used the Net for ten years. He also projects that content will become an increasingly important factor. "Content adds value to the experience. If you're not telling users anything new, they ain't going to return."
Yang also thinks that those who know how to best use the Web will see the most success. He projects that the difference between those that are "out there because they understand the Net" and those that "are out there simply because they want to be on the Web" will help determine success or failure. "It's the people who understand the medium who are going to win." Peck agrees and links potential business success to understanding that "the Internet is a fickle place."
While the Internet's Manifest Destiny takes shape, one thing remains almost certain. The Internet World conferences will increase in size. The one slated for Boston in the fall will be larger simply because the facility has more room and can accommodate bigger exhibitions, Schwartz said. As for next year's San Jose conference, it will certainly double in size. "That more than anything is reflective of what is happening to the Internet," Schwartz said. ¤
Amelia DeLoach is studying technical communication at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, NY. When she's not working on CMC Magazine, she spends hours working on multimedia programs and fussing with house plants.
Copyright © 1995 by Amelia DeLoach. All Rights Reserved.