We Won't Behave

Tales From The Bitstream

Jeff Schult and Nicole Chardenet

Is it worth it to throw a big conference on the World Wide Web in New York City these days, complete with 3D product launchings, blue-corn nachos and strange beer, geeks galore mingling with the nervous suits? Yes, if you're Mecklermedia Corp. of Westport, which puts on the biggest and best of these things worldwide, and the show is something to behold. Web Interactive is its name, and assuring everyone there's gold in them thar cyberhills is its game.

Jeff: The strain is apparent in Webland, and the laughter is sardonic and nervous when folks get up and talk about the future. Because no one is making any money on the Internet except the people who connect other people to it. This is not looking like the Promised Land to advertisers and "content providers" anymore. Running a cool web site, corporately, is starting to look an awful lot like owning a boat - a fun and impressive hobby but expensive as all hell.

Why? Because we (meaning those of us variously called Netizens, surfers, online addicts, etc.) are not Behaving. I tried this sentence out on a couple of people a few weeks ago as we wandered and wondered around Web Interactive at the Sheraton New York: "We're not going to behave," I said. Everyone knew exactly what I was talking about. The millions of people on the Internet are not behaving like good American consumers. We ignore advertising. We wander off and talk to our friends when we should be shopping. We guard our privacy. We have itchy mouse fingers.

Nicole: There are a few success stories, but it's apparent even the bigwigs on Madison Avenue haven't figured out how to make the Web work for them. Most places haven't even figured out what HTML, the most popular Web site development program, is all about, and that's something that requires pattycake-level technical skills. Soothsayers at Web Interactive claim would-be advertisers will have to plumb the depths of Java applets, VRML, and sound applications to stop the point-and-click crowd in its tracks. And those will require programming skills a little more, ah, advanced than what your computer-savvy teen-age kid can do for the price of a new skateboard.

Jeff: My favorite tidbit? Forty percent more people will click on an ad that says "click here" than on one that doesn't. If we act like sheep, we can't blame them for treating us that way. But not enough of us "click here" to start with. We click here, there and everywhere. It bothers the suits, who clearly would like to rearrange the web like a magazine or a shopping mall. "The sites that make money are going to be the ones that combine various revenue streams, from ads, from direct commercial transactions, from subscriptions," said the CEO of EarthWeb, which is making some money, apparently. Well, duh. When no economic model succeeds, try them all at once.

Nicole: But if advertisers think they've got troubles, wait until the telephone companies see Vocaltec's 4.0 upgrade to its popular software Internet Phone, debuted here. Sound quality of the popular software, they claim, has improved, although you still need a full-duplex sound card to avoid the "CB Radio" Syndrome -- waiting until the other person is finished speaking before you start -- but what makes the latest upgrade so exhilarating is a plug-in they're developing due out in September. It will allow you to use your computer as a telephone and call anyone in the world, whether they have a computer or not, let alone the compatible software. Yes, that's right, you can call Mom in El Segundo or Cousin Voytek in Volgograd over the Internet for free. Of course, the telcos haven't been the least bit pleased with computer telephony developers, and we can xpect some serious regulation of the industry in the near future. But for now, say hi to Cousin Voytek, and tell him to have a pierogie for us.

Jeff: Downstairs, in the exhibition hall, video servers and 3D chat environments were the rage, hawked by bright-faced, zealous 30-somethings whose salaries are all being paid by venture capital checks. Their eyes glaze a bit when you mention this-or-that competitor -- it's not THEIR fault that geeks everywhere are upping the technological stakes faster than they -- or we -- are ready for them. 3D chat looks and even sounds very cool on a computer screen that is on a very fast, very clear, very clean connection to the Internet, the kind that most people don't have. The venture capitalists are all betting that their geeks will be the ones still standing when we, all of us, have our Pentium Pros and PowerMacs and fiber optic cable in our dens and living rooms.

Nicole: Despite the angst exhibited here and elsewhere, we expect the commercial enterprise will have its day in the Sun-and we don't mean the guys who develop SPARCstations. Right now the Web is in its infancy, only a small minority of the country is actually "wired", and there is still a lot of technophobia regarding computers and especially this mysterious beast called the Internet.

But today's children are growing up with computers the way we grew up with television, the Net population is growing exponentially, and there may well be 100 million users by the end of the millennium. Give this sucker another five to ten years, and to borrow from Mark Twain, reports of the commercial Web's imminent demise will have been greatly exaggerated.

Jeff and Nicole, who've bought cool stuff over the Internet already and think it beats standing in line at the department store surrounded by screaming rug rats, can be reached at jeffbot at this domain

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