Who's Afraid of the Big, Bad, Web?
by Stevan Alburty

From The Net

1995 by Stevan Alburty
    All rights reserved.




I've been contemplating the future of commercial online services recently and, of course, that always gets me thinking about Trini Lopez.

Trini Lopez enjoyed a few flashy years as a Latino pop singer in the `60s. In the bottom of my armoire is an old 8-track tape entitled, unfortunately a little too accurately, "Trini Lopez Now!" I don't expect to see a revival of 8-track technology or, for that matter, Trini Lopez' career, but I don't throw this old tape out because, for me, it has an almost invaluable use as metaphor. It serves as a cautionary talisman, reminding me that all things pass; all technology is transient.

The online service industry is undergoing a transformation so radical it may redefine itself right out of its own existence.

Like Wizards of Oz begging everyone to "pay no attention to that man behind the curtain," the Big Three online services (Prodigy, Compuserve and America Online) did their best to ignore the Internet for as long as they could. They hoped it would either go away or remain the befuddling domain of those bits-'n-bytes buffs who can hear the word "Unix" without wincing and crossing their legs. Now the commercial services are falling all over themselves in their rush to embrace the Net.

Prodigy proved to be the innovative leader in providing its users with Internet access. (Trust me, it was just as painful for me to type that sentence as it was for some of you to read it. I do not often juxtapose the words "Prodigy" and "leader" except, perhaps, when referring to debt.) Although America Online beat everyone to the punch with access to Internet news groups, Prodigy was the first to produce a gateway to the Web. It is this very access which may lead to the redefinition, if not the actual demise, of the commercial services.

Over the last few years, the Big Three have been signing up content providers at a dizzying rate. Publishers who once would have rather swallowed ink than admit to the inevitability of the digital revolution are now scrambling to develop electronic versions of their magazines and databases and have signed contracts of varying exclusivity with the online services. But now those same content providers are discovering they can develop their own web servers on the Internet for remarkably little money. They are additionally discovering, much to their horror, that they now have to develop their content in two formats - one the open standard of the Web, the other the mastodonic, proprietary interfaces of the commercial services.

Why, then, do they still need Prodigy, AOL and Compuserve? Cash, of course. As soon as a user clicks on that "@times" logo on America Online, for example, a portion of the user's hourly access fee starts pouring into the coffers of The New York Times.

Until recently, the machismo of the Web dictated that Thou Shalt Not Charge for Information. A few brave souls like Infoseek, Dow Jones and the San Jose Mercury News are experimenting with a variety of pricing schemes to see what the marketspace will bear. It will only be a matter of time before somebody makes some serious money on the Net. The rest of the information publishing business will then realize that they can, in effect, become their own commercial online service.

Once the content providers have abandoned Prodigy, Compuserve and America Online, what, as Scarlett O'Hara once wailed, is to become of them? The worst case scenario says they will become mere pipelines, a phone number you dial in order to access the Web and the Internet. But there is another possibility, one as potentially lucrative as the function they now provide.

The new consumers who are just now buying computers with modems and are rushing to get on the Infobahn before the traffic is bumper-to-bumper have no maps, no sense of direction, and no idea of where they were really going when they got into the car. By nature, people are inquisitive, but not particularly adventuresome. They like nice, fat freeways and big exit signs. For those who enjoy random access, the Internet is an exhilarating experience, rich with serendiptitous discovery. But many users, especially Net neophytes, wind up getting lost and frustrated.

The real value the online industry can potentially provide on this crowded network might ultimately be one of navigation, not content. The services which survive the next evolutionary leap will combine intuitive new ways of mapping cyberspace with unique approaches to group collaboration and communications. The winner will be the one who offers the most compelling experience, not the most data.

For maybe it isn't "information" we're after out there on the highway at all. Maybe it's the joy of the journey itself.