February 1997


The Internet Is 'Mission Critical' For Business

A Report from the Fourth Internet World Conference in New York City

by Chris Lapham

NEW YORK, NEW YORK - The 60,000 or so conference attendees and the super-wired exhibit floor said it all. The Internet is big business and big business is investing in the Internet.

Fortunately, companies have stopped asking "How can I make money from my Web site?" Instead, the question now is "How quickly can I put my data up?" An Internet presence is no longer an option but instead has become 'mission critical' to most businesses.

It's the ubiquitous ability to see real time data, according to keynote speaker John Gage, director of Sun Microsystems' Science Office, that has moved electronic commerce to a whole new level. Gage was truly one of the conference's highlights and he helped put the whole Internet phenomenon in context.

"There's money here," said Gage, "and it's based on the ability to move information. The future is stunning. We can link 100,000 million machines around the world and the cost is essentially free," says Gage. "What happens tomorrow is the intelligence of every object."

First there was multimedia, then came the Internet, next is embedded devices, according to Gage.

Look For Networking Of Intelligent Objects

This new ability to network devices means ordinary objects, such as cars and airplanes, can become "intelligent objects." For example, when cars and airplanes are equipped with global positioning system (GPS) technology, they can be linked to a database and give drivers and pilots real-time navigational assistance.

The Web provides a global distribution channel that is both cost effective and easy to enter, according to Ben Slick, vice president and general manager of Netcom Commercial Services, Inc. Slick believes that small-to-medium sized business, such as 1-800 Batteries, a distributor of batteries for electronic products, are in a good position to take advantage of Web technology now.

In addition to distribution, companies are effectively using the Web for customer service. Slick told Internet World attendees that when Dell Computer switched from a toll-free 800 number to a Web-based self-service order checking system, the cost per customer inquiry dropped from two dollars to five cents. Now, one-third of Dell's customers use the new self-service system.

An Uncanny Way To Collect Data

Despite its promise as a distribution channel and a customer service center, the Web still confounds developers looking for a revenue model that really works. Before advertising can become a viable revenue stream for Web sites, the industry needs a better way to collect data and measure site traffic. O'Reilly & Associates, Inc., one of the industry's most innovative companies, is developing new technology for information measurement. "We're following our noses, " said Tim O'Reilly, company president. "We're trying to figure out what the Internet can tell us. We're now waking up to things you can start to look at on the network," he said.

O'Reilly has developed new software to analyze Web traffic called Statisphere, which will be released this spring. Songline Studios, an O'Reilly affiliate, also built, a way to collect information from Web visitors. The Movie Critic site asks people which movies they like and don't like, matches their preferences against a pool of others with similar preferences, and then recommends certain movies. In the process, the software is able to create a profile of each visitor.

"You'd be flabbergasted at how effective it is," said O'Reilly. "It creates incredible data for marketers. We believe that collaborative filtering, as demonstrated by Movie Critic, is an extremely powerful technology both for producing really satisfactory user experiences and for gathering terrific customer information that can be used for commercial purposes," he said. O'Reilly predicts that in the future we will see more such "network aware tools" that require information from customers to work.

It's Push Not Pull

Another sign of the increasing sophistication of the Internet is the industry's movement away from relying on visitors to "pull" information from a Web site. Instead, many companies are now adopting a "push" model of information delivery and sending personalized information directly to readers. Two good example of this are the "My Yahoo" service provided by Yahoo, an Internet stalwart, and The Angle, which allows you to set up a profile of the personalized information you want to receive.

Drowning In The Info Glut

As the Web continues to grow, searching for and finding specific information becomes more and more difficult and time consuming. If fact, in the near future (or maybe right now) you may be so glutted with information that you'll pay to receive less information. Larry Chase, president of Chase Online Marketing Strategies, believes that filtering is the key to managing Internet data. According to Chase, online publishers can enhance the value of their sites by working with consumers to filter some of the information--a process known as collaborative filtering.

Bold Experiments--Internet Magic

Perhaps the most exciting and interesting trends aren't trends at all but bold, innovative ventures taken by companies willing to experiment and push the limits of today's technology. McGraw Hill's Manuscripts Online is just such a venture. To test a book's market potential, McGraw Hill is putting selected manuscripts online before they are published to collect early reactions and opinions from potential audiences.

Next, The Iron Age?

If there is one certainty, one overriding trend associated with the Internet, it is the promise of constant change. Those in the industry that take a longer view believe that current developments are only the beginning of much larger and more profound changes. "The tools have gone from stones and bear claws to the Bronze Age," said Bob Muglia, Microsoft's vice president for Internet platforms and tools. "Businesses are still struggling to find out how to leverage the Internet. The promise is there, we just have to make it happen."

Chris Lapham ( is a technology writer, consultant, and planner who focuses on the development of online content. She lives in the Capital District of New York State.

Copyright © 1997 by Chris Lapham. All Rights Reserved.

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