Selling shovels

Fortune magazine is trying to internalise the internet and seems to almost get it.

          Fortune magazine is trying to internalise the internet and seems to almost get it.

          After reading through more than 300 pages of the fall special issue dedicated to the internet, it's clear that the basic question about the internet still is: Aside from the shovel sellers, who is going to make money at it and how?

          As one would expect from Fortune, the issue is full of tidbits about the many internet quazillionaires - people and companies - and particularly venture capital firms. It also dances through the landscape of new technologies that, in Fortune's view, will shape the future of the internet, which the magazine quaintly says is "the biggest business story of the last five years."

          I was disappointed that the magazine doesn't have a good analysis of the economics of that future net. The articles cover the relative costs of broadband technologies, from a low of $US400 per customer for cable-based systems to as much as a projected $US1500 per customer for fibre to the home.

          The magazine doesn't try to determine what all that internet connectivity will cost. Because the magazine includes an estimate that more than a trillion dollars will be spent on "fast online access" infrastructure, it seems to me the question of getting some money back for the investors would be of some interest.

          In their infinite semiwisdom, the Fortune writers have come up with "four technologies that will shape the net," which they predict might have as big an impact as the World Wide Web and the web browser. The fab four technologies are voice browsers, Bluetooth, XML and peer-to-peer networking.

          Voice browsers, because with them you can surf the web while driving - a great idea to push when communities are beginning to ban the use of cell phones in moving cars because drivers get too distracted.

          The magazine's description of the Bluetooth local-area wireless technology makes the term "ubiquitous" seem wholly inadequate. The magazine calls XML the future lingua franca of the internet - making the all-too-common leap over the problem of getting agreement on the dictionary.

          Fortune thinks peer-to-peer networking is some sort of new idea with the first mass-market incarnation being Napster. In thinking that, the magazine is demonstrating its deep understanding of the internet, because peer-to-peer networking was one of the original internet enablers.

          The web, far from being a "centralised model" as Fortune claims, grew up in a peer-to-peer environment with thousands of people putting up their own websites long before Fortune even knew how to spell internet.

          It's been said the only people who made money during the California gold rush were those who sold supplies such as food and shovels to the miners.

          At this point, the only thing that's clear about the economics of the internet is that building electronics and optics, and thus being on the receiving end of that trillion dollars of investment, is better than trying to figure out how to pay it back.

          Disclaimer: Harvard's biggest push for investment was only for 0.2% of a trillion dollars, so the above is out of the university's league and must be my observation.

          Bradner is a consultant with Harvard University's University Information Systems. He can be reached at sob@sobco.com.

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