Clay Shirky's Writings About the Internet
Economics and Culture, Media and Community, Open Source
Notes from October's "Internet World" Conference, 2000.

Just got back from Internet World 2K in New York. I have gone to every
Internet World in New York since 1993, and my approach is always the
same - skip the conference and the keynotes and go straight to the
trade floor, and then walk every aisle and look (briefly) at every
booth. Today was several hundred booths, and took 7 hours, because the
show not only filled the Javits end-to-end, but spilled over into a
temporary structure erected north of the Javits to take the overflow.

I do this because it doesn't matter to me when one company thinks they
have a good idea, but when I see three companies with the same idea,
then I start to take notice. As such, this write-up isn't about
individual companies so much as about industry themes.

In addition, the floor of Internet World is a good proxy for the
marketplace: if a company can't make its business proposition clear to
the person passing by their booth, they aren't going to be able to
make it clear in the market either. Most memorable tag line this year:
"Web Experience Management Solutions for Organizations that must
deliver successful web interactions." Oh good, my boss was just asking
for that.  Another goodie: "It begins with 'e'" (for a company called
eon). That probably tested great with the focus groups, but to my eye
it looks like a commentary on how predictable naming strategies for
internet businesses have become.

Herewith my impressions of the IW2K zeitgeist:
  • What is Internet World for? In years past, Internet World has had an identity crisis, as a tradeshow for everyone from router engineers to media buyers to end users. That is over now -- INterent World, at least in NY, is now a tradeshow for companies that provides goods and services to companies using the internet for their business. There were only a handful of booths for sites for end users -- Atomfilms, -- and they looked completely out of place amidst the content syndicators, web site audit tools, multi-lingual translation services and HR services. Internet World has become a strictly b2b affair.
  • The New New Thing... ...didn't show up. I didn't see anything really new at the show, for either or hardware or software. There were lots of new products and services, of course, and lots of new companies, but no new ideas and no new categories. Internet World is now a trade show for a maturing industry, where the emphasis is not on creating new kinds of functions but in making improvements on existing ones -- CRM, ASP, content management, hosting, et al. The only really new thing at IW was Groove, Ray Ozzie's audacious attempt at living up to the dream of the two-way web, and Ray was holding court in meeting rooms off to the side -- Groove wasn't even on the show floor. I lost count of the number of times companies told me they were the leading this or the leading that in their space. No one, in 7 hours and many conversations, ever told me that their offering was unique, or that they had no competition -- everyone wanted to be part of a well-defined sector, and then to be the leading company in that sector. I detect novelty fatigue, and a sense that its safer to be in a validated business sector than to be pioneering a new one. No big theme jumped out this year either. In other years, there's been Java, or push, or some other bandwagon people were eager to jump on or distance themselves from. This year though, the only broad theme I could detect was fairly broad, and which I would call "Anxiety Alleviation". Gone are the days when convicing businesses to go online in the first place was the mission of IW: to a first approximation, every business is now using the net. Many of the exhibitors in this show were linked by trying to provide these businesses not great new opportunities, but trying instead to solve particularly thorny problems, like - "How can I manage all this content?" Content management is back as a category. As the home grown solutions groan under the weight of constant updates, and more businesses have to move to dynamic content in order to be able to update the site without breaking it, the competition for web publishing/content management systems is heating up again, with Allaire introducing its first offering in this space, and Vignette, the clear leader in high-end web publishing, trying to outpace the competition by re-positioning itself as an 'ebusiness solution', instead of merely being a content tool. - "How can I let my employees publish to the web while bypassing those recalcitrant sysadmins?" Lots of competitors to Microsoft's FrontPage as well, but designed specifically for business environments. These products are more workflow systems than full content management solutions, and are more positioned around the idea that a companies Web site can't be allowed to suffer from the bottleneck of an organizations IT group. The general solution for this class of products is to allow certain employees the ability to change web content, and then to give them tools to let them update pages without requiring them to know HTML. - "How can I use the Web for groups of employees?" Many offerings for intranet/groupware, designed to "enable collaborative workgroups" or "capture group intelligence." The days when internet use was a largely personal affair seem to be ending, at least for businesses, as concern for creating shared Web environments grows. (The aforementioned is in this space as well.) Another concern here was in "knowledge management", companies offering ways to capture the collective wisdom of a sales force or work group. - "How can I talk to/interact with my customers?" Lots of companies offering to answer this question. Of all the "Anxiety Alleviators" of the show, this was the category with the most obvious anxiety around it: why are so few of the visitors to my site buying anything? There were lots of related solutions here -- CRM, internet call centers, real time chat with customers onsite -- and it is all targetted at raising the the number of people who buy and number of people who return to ecommerce web sites. - "How can I get them this Zirconium ring they just bought?" There were several companies offering to help with shipping and tracking, from a start-up that is taking a page from Kozmo and building package dropoffs in grocery stores, to UPS, who is trying to make up for the ground it lost in letting FedEx become the ecommerce shipper of choice for several high profile brands. - "How can I monitor my customer base?" The anxiety in the executive suites about how little they know about how customers are using their web site was also in full flower. WebTrends was there, of course, but most of the offerings weren't stand-alone log file analysis but full-on suties of "ebusiness intelligence monitoring" -- customer experience audits, site performance analysis, data mining. All these businesses share an idea that by their behaviors, customers are trying to tell you something, and if you listen, you will be able to improve their experinece and your bottom line. - "How can I get a kicker on ecommerce revenues?" I was amused to see several companies offering customized wrapping paper, logo printing, and other ways to generate an extra $1 on ecommerce transactions. Look for a lot of this sort of novelty/one off upsell this Christmas. - "What if I get sued?" There were several insurance companies, a category I haven't even been aware of in previous Internet Worlds. How's that for the net going mainstream? - "How can I make my site more responsive?" Many products or services designed to speed up the responsiveness of a web site, by caching, streaming, or optimizing the way it is served. Akamai has clearly raised the standards for web site responsiveness, and in light of the slow roll-out of broadband, there are a number of companies rushing into the breach. - "How can I keep my servers running?" As uptime becomes a mainstream business issue, it is driving growth in the number of companies offering remote monitoring, testing, and reporting on network health and web site responsiveness/uptime.
  • If they pay for you, they own you. The only big surprise to me this year was the explosion of partner pavilions. I have always been suspicious of partner pavilions, since the real beneficiary is the sponsor, often at the expense of the nominal partner: "BEHOLD THE MAJESTY THAT IS ORACLE!!! (and here's our partner, MumbleCo....)". The real effect of the Partner Pavilions is chest-beating. Companies that sell services or solutions (Oracle, MS, Real) use the size of their Partner Pavilion to signal how wide industry adoption of their offering is. As a result, I found it impossible to take any of the actual partenrs in the booths seriously -- they are the corporate equivalent of booth babes. The bigger message, however, is that the giants we have now are largely going to be the giants we have in the future, and for smaller companies, their affilaitions with these giants are going to become increasingly critical. Even odder are the country pavilions, the "Made In Israel/Germany/ Sweden" booths with companies from their respective countries. These companies are likewise impossible to take seriously, because the message behind this supposed show of national pride is "Not Good Enough." Not good enough to make it to Internet World on their own, that is, a suspicion heightened when you see how many companies on the show floor have dual headquarters in the US and Tel Aviv, or Berlin, or Hong Kong without needing any help from their respective governments. If a country really wants to spend its tax dollars helping local businesses join the internet economy, it should buy 3 or 4 separate spots on the show floor and give them to the companies, without the self-defeating "Made in Sweden" label.
  • The power of the hosting providers Hosting providers, those unsexy businesses that build network centers and buy bandwidth, are suddenly the industry's new power brokers. Globix, Global Center, and Genuity all had mammoth booths. Because hosting providers have long term relationships with their clients, unlike ad agencies and consultants, and because they get a monthly check, unlike product vendors, and because they are the only third party who has access behind the firewall, they have emereged as the ideal broker of additinal services to companies that already use them.
  • The global internet and the local internet Geography has arrived as a major force. Language translation is everywhere as a service, as the days of the purely American-centric internet wane. There are also a surprising number of services offering to aggregate content by local area, from a mapping company, to a search engine that maps URLs to geography to a company that aggregates news/weather/etc and lets you pick content modules for your website, tailored to your area. The web is increasingly being mapped, literally and figuratively, to the real world.
  • Content syndication Many companies are offering content syndication tools, where they provide some sort of dynamic service -- news, calendaring, "browser buddy" navigation tools -- which you license for yo8ur website. Along with the content management tools and template-driven publishing tools, the push towards syndicated contetn is all part of the general anxiety over managing a dynamic and constnatly updated web site without having to become a publishing company.
  • Mobile Mobile has arrived, of course. The bad news for WAP is that everyone is selling "Mobile Solutions", of which WAP is presented as a sub-set. WAP had hoped to become synonymous with the mobile internet, and that didn't happen. In particular, Palm is emerging as the alternate platform of choice, a move further dramatized by the side-by-side positioning of the packed Palm pavilion and the relatively sparsely attended WAP pavilion. Because Palm is a real OS, several companies are offering Palm browsers (YadaYada) or Palm servers (Thin Air) to extend Palm's functions as a mobile device.
  • Talk is back Voice over the intenet is back in another incarnation. Last year, there was lots of internet telephony -- that was all but gone this year, to be replaced by several companies offering talk as a service to increase customer retention and loyalty, whether through sales agents, pre-recorded messages, or help functions.
  • VR/3D is back, with a vengeance. Another hardy perennial is the idea of 3D shopping, sometimes with a 3D avatar, sometimes just to look at the product. This has always seemed to me like the Videophone of the Web, an idea that is always being pushed by technologists but never adopted by users. In keeping with this year's theme of Anxiety Alleviation, however, 3D is no longer being sold as a way to make a cool web site, but as just the ticket for closing sales and encouraging customer loyalty. I'm not holding my breath.
  • Ontology is back, and so are search engines After a few years in which AI and agents were largely ignored as impractical, and in which a few major portals had the search space locked up, specialized search engines, especially ones armed with "inference engines" (sets of rules about which words mean what and are related to which other words) or geared to smaller than Web-wide searches (only industry veritcals, or corporate intranets, or in geographic areas. Google proved that as the amount of data on the Web continues to explode, new search solutions can find a market.
  • The dogs that didn't bark in the night. - Digital Signatures. There were few companies trying to take advantage of the new Digitial Signature Act. By next year, expect services offering electronically enforceable signatures to be legion. - E-books. There was only one standalone "ebook" product I saw. This is probably because ebooks don't (yet) have any b2b applications. - Peer-to-peer. Softwax was the only peer-to-peer company there, and no one was touting their peer-to-peer solutions. By next year this meme will either be ubiquitous or gone. - Linux. Only one company specifically touting Linux. When it comes to operating systems, the concerns represented at the show were much more about uptime, remote management, and reporting, rather than being about which operating system to use. - Napster, and the Entertainment Industry. Not a peep, except Atom Film and one lonely NAPTE booth in the North PAvilion. The entertainment industry's issues with the internet are being aired elsewhere. - Likewise, there were very few companies offering employee monitoring/copyright compliance software to comapnies, or Digital Righta Management services to producers of content.
  • Other random notes. - Two years ago, 'IP' at Internet World stopped meaning 'Internet Protocol' and started meaning 'Intellectual Property.' This year, 'POP' stopped meaning 'Post Office Protocol' and started meaning 'Point of Presence' marketing. - Lots of job recruitment sites and outsourced business solutions for tech employees this year. Despite the layoffs in recent months, the need for skilled labor is still strong. - Magazines are a trailing indicator of a business sector. There were lots of magazines there, presumably hoping to validate themselves as good places to do all that spending on ads dot coms do. Even the NY Times got into the act, publishing a gratuitious "Ecommerce' section on the first day of the trade show, featuring not a single article that wouldn't have been at home in the 'Circuits' section. Expect this to contract this year. As a trailing indicator, its will soon be the magazine world's turn to get big, get niche, or get out. - Associations are a trailing indicator as well. There were lots of associations you could join this year, whch blur in my mind into a "Worldwide Consortium of Affiliated Web Managers and Marketers Society". This presumably is occaisioned by the desire to keep a new crop of upstarts from displacing us, the old crop of upstarts. - AOL metamorphosis into an internet company is complete. The AOL booth, complete with partner pavilion, and the ads for AOL6.0 and AOL anywhere, put it at the center of the action. - XML is no longer a service, now its a feature. Last year there were several companies offering to help you with your XML needs. This year, XML is simply a check-off on many products and services. Like Java, XML won't live up to the hype, but like Java, once its been widely enough adopted, it will find its niche and occupy it. - The ASP model is now the norm. I had several conversations with companies selling standalone corporate software products, but almost all of them assured me they had an ASP alternative in the works. This is related to the new power of the hosting providers, who have the leverage to hasten adoption of ASP services. - I did see two services that took bits of old models to make a new thing. The first was Navixo, which is taking the "Yahoo Browser Bar" idea, but allowing companies to populate it differently when users come to their sites. Its a way, in other words, to add real pull-down menus to site navigation, an idea that never really caught on with the launch of DHTML. The other was a company called Enkia, which uses its own database to build "Find more like this..." features for sites using an ASP model, rather than requiring those sites to install local software on their database. - The personal computer was nowhere to be seen. PCs are now as taken for granted as routers, and while Compaq and IBM were there, they weren't showing PCs, while the pure PC manufacturers like Toshiba and Gateway weren't there at all. - Ominously for Apple, the iMac, last year's booth acoutrement of choice, was also nowhere to be seen. - In general, this show was the most characterless Internet World I've been to. You would never know, walking the trade floor, that this industry had ever been considered threatening to corporate America, since by now it largely is corporate America. I saw one head of purple hair, but otherwise there was almost no one there who would be unwelcome in the halls of General Electric. As if to underline the point, as I was leaving I ran into Ugly George, the Flying Dutchman of New York's Internet Industry, lugging his albatross of a web cam with him, and not only did he seem bizarrely out of place, even his identity had been corporatized, as his access pass read "George Ugly". Glad thats over. See you next year. -clay

  • Write with questions or comments.

    Mail a copy of this essay:

    Enter the email address of the recipient. Multiple addresses should be separated by commas.

    Add your own message(optional):

    Your name:(optional)

    Note: Your name, and your recipient's email address, will only be used to transfer this article, and will not be stored or used for any other purpose.

    Send the article URL only
    Send the article as HTML
    Send the article as plain text Clay Shirky's Writings About the Internet
    Economics and Culture, Media and Community, Open Source