The State of the Internet, 2004
Or, What I did on my Christmas vacation, past, present, and future (Dec 29, 2004)
NOTE: This is a reprint of an article I wrote on December 29, 2004
Perhaps you received one of Jacquie Lawson’s lovely animated holiday cards in your email this month. The 61-year-old British painter taught herself to use a computer four years ago, spent a few weeks making an animated greeting card, sent it to some friends, and left for vacation. Upon her return a few weeks later, she had received a thousand emails from strangers worldwide asking for more.
Today, Ms. Lawson has over 300,000 subscribers who pay $8 annually to share her creations (www.jacquielawson.com). Her sales last year totaled about $1.7 million and may jump to as much as $5 million by year end, according to the Wall Street Journal (December 21, 2004), who describes her business as “profitable”. I’d say!
Jump back ten years — 1994
Connecting to the Internet
Recently I came across a notebook from my first few years of Internet explorations. It contained an email dated December 6, 1994, where I inquired, “Hi, how can I get a copy of Mosaic for Windows?”
The email was to Mark Mallett at MV Communications (Manchester, NH www.mv.com), one of the first Internet Service Providers (ISP) in New Hampshire. That year, 1994 is also the year Netscape was founded.
I spent my Christmas vacation determined to find out what this new phenomenon was all about. And I was shocked at how difficult it was. Under Windows 3.1, I had to manually connect to a dial-up “SLIP” account, download a copy of Mosaic (the first browser and precursor to Netscape), install a WINsocket (for TCP/IP networking) and configure an email client (Eudora). Before vacation ended, I was up and running and exploring some offbeat underground web sites.
Thankfully, today much of this techno-stuff is largely hidden and embedded in our operating systems and communications services. We no longer need to think about or even know what’s going on under the hood. As in the early days of the automobile where every owner needed to be mechanic, today connection to the Internet has matured to the point where anyone can access the web without being an expert.
Developing web sites
The following Christmas vacation I fearlessly set out to develop my own web site. This time my e-mail to Mark dated December 12, 1995 asked, “Hi, I’m starting to develop my own web pages. Do you support CGI scripts and image maps?”
Around that time I also downloaded beta copies of Netscape Navigator 2.0 and Java 1.0. And I registered the domain name “linowes.com” which we still use today for personal email and family web sites.
Year after year, more and more companies included their web address in their advertising. Today, most small and medium sized businesses consider their website as an electronic brochure. And if that’s all you need, it’s definitely a good place to start. The future? Companies’ web sites will become increasingly interactive, dynamic, and integrated with their business operations — including customer support, supply chain, partnering, and communications.
Multimedia and Search Engines
By the end of 1996 I was investigating multimedia. Early versions of the RealAudio player were available, though exhibited poor quality. We were also in the midst of the Microsoft — Netscape wars. I subscribed to an early search engine called InfoSeek.
Multimedia audio, video and animation clips are much more common and easily accessible today, often nicely integrated into company websites (especially on traditional news media sites) and computer-based training. MP3 music files, and players like the iPod, are transforming the music industry. And already the same transition is starting to impact video and television programming, with on-demand record and playback.
Browsers… Microsoft may have won the war against Netscape, then lost their will for innovation. Today’s hot new browser is Firefox (www.getfirefox.com), an open-source derivation of the Netscape/Mozilla project. If you haven’t tried it, I recommend you download a copy and give it a shot. It is fast, accurate, secure, and includes a lot of intuitive features, like tabbed windows (open multiple web pages in one window). In addition, independent programmers are writing their own extensions, and making them available for you to download for free.
Google appears to have won the search engine war, at least for now, but Microsoft seems to be preparing an offensive much like they did to Netscape. Stay tuned for this one…
And while Google has become a verb synonymous with searching, as useful as it may be, it is still a very primitive tool. In the future, accuracy of searching will rely upon natural language, the context of your question, and the semantic encoding of information accessible via the Web.
In December 1997, I tried ICQ, the first instant messaging (IM) tool. The problem was I didn’t know anyone else using it at the time, so I chatted with strangers; which kept my interest for about a day. Today, IM has become essential for many folks both on the web and wireless. IM blends the advantages of real time communications (i.e. telephone) with those of asynchronous communications (i.e. e-mail); which seems like a contradiction but it works. You can even add voice and video to your IM sessions, and this will become more prevalent in the future.
Encryption and security
By December 1998, my browser (MS IE 4.0) had encryption for better security in e-commerce. This very basic level of security enabled you to maintain private secure connections with a business web site for the exchange of confidential information such as credit card data.
Today, security has become the number one risk to the growth and effectiveness of the Internet. We must deal with the proliferation of spam, computer viruses, and identify theft. Businesses need to protect themselves from hackers, fraud, and other kinds of attacks.
In the future, all Internet communications will have better security, including email (which today is almost like shouting your deepest secrets across a crowded room). Unfortunately change does not come from just knowing the risks. The incentives are coming from privacy legislation (HIPAA, Sorbanes-Oxley, etc), financial risks (insurance companies will require it), and personal inconvenience (how much time do you waste dealing with spam and viruses?).
Business to Business
Besides bracing for catastrophic effects of Y2K bugs, in December 1999 I was focused on building a new venture for business-to-business transactions over the Internet. It had all the necessary components, including state of the art security, enterprise class reliability, ease of use, and a well defined market opportunity. We received substantial venture capital and rode the wave (which turned out to be a bubble). The company heralded many successes but also faced stiff competition.
Today’s solutions for back-end business transactions are often subscription based, rely on industry standards, and are more affordable than pre-Internet EDI solutions. Web services and other programming infrastructures facilitate the interaction between differing corporate application systems over the Internet. Today’s standards form the technical foundations upon which future business relationships will continue to be built.
Palms and Cell Phones
During Christmas week 2000 I was playing with my new Palm Pilot and cell phone. OK, my Palm wasn’t connected to the Internet, but I liked to pretend it was. My cell phone had a primitive text-based Internet browser and email reader, which was useful for killing time at an airport. Today the promise of wireless connectivity is very much a reality. While certainly not everyone is using it (especially in New Hampshire where digital wireless connections are still spotty), the features and usability are prominent (e.g. sharing cell phone photos with family) and the technology is largely transparent.
Chat Rooms, Forums, and Communities
By December 2001, the bubble burst, the twin towers burned, reality hit home, and we were not on a Space Odyssey. It was a time for mourning and regrouping. I spent Christmas vacation making new friends on AOL chat rooms and Yahoo! groups. Some chat rooms were lame, sophomoric, and even moronic, while others really fostered a strong sense of community and sharing.
I recall one evening engaged in an online chat with perhaps a dozen others. At some points, the interaction accelerated to blasts of high performance quick-witted messages flying by at a faster than conversational pace. Exciting!
Cable modem, Linux, and home wireless networking
Finally my cable provider offered digital cable modem service, and I signed up. And Linux was making headlines in the Wall Street Journal; it wasn’t just for geeks anymore, so I installed it. Wireless networking afforded me a way to connect all the computers in our home, so I set up one. Learning Linux was by far the most challenging. None of this was new technology, but a lot of it was new to me. For Christmas season 2002, my family had an Intra-net, including shared calendar, home pages, email boxes, and firewall security.
Enter the blogosphere
In December 2003 I subscribed to several news feeds, personal blogs (web logs), and even tinkered with writing my own. This was the height of the presidential primary season, especially in New Hampshire, and Howard Dean’s campaign was making news for its success in leveraging the Internet and blogging. The impact of the Internet on politics was real. In the following months leading up to the presidential election, the term “blogosphere” made its way into the mainstream, and demonstrated an irrevocable impact on traditional media.
Content management and collaboration
This year I am exploring how to take my web sites to the next level through technologies for content management, community discussions, and collaboration. There are a plethora of choices, and those products are non-trivial to learn and apply. But a dynamic, interactive web presence is an essential key to the future. Let me explain.
- Managing today’s web sites is really very similar to the conventional publishing process. After the up front cost of development, the real cost is keeping the information fresh. Organizations across the spectrum must implement procedures for authoring, editing, and production. This is an important perspective; one that obsoletes the legacy the role of the “webmaster.”
- Customer service is key to business success. Customers expect much more today from your web site, and in fact, it may be more important than your phone. Can your customers find what they need from you online? Do they get the response they expect?
- More than likely your business is the champion and/or participant in one or more communities— customers, suppliers, partners, etc. Does your web site support these relationships? The technology is available, and not as expensive as you might think.
As we enter 2005, today it’s clearer than ever that we’ve only taken baby steps on the exciting digital road ahead. Yet, what a long strange trip it’s been.
So, what to make of Ms. Lawson’s electronic greeting card business? It’s a lovely example of the culmination of a decade of Internet — a cottage business, publishing creative multimedia content, through a simple yet informative commercial website, with a membership model that fosters a sense of a community.
Originally published by Jonathan Linowes in Issue #16 of the “Natural Entrepreneur of New Hampshire” electronic newsletter on December 29, 2004.