From the ether: The 1996 Net collapse prediction

Bob Metcalfe, the apostle of Internet doom, casts an eye over his predictions one year ago. Has the Internet collapsed this year? And in particular, have CD-ROMs sent through Federal Express - instead of the 'bogging Internet' - became the information superhighway?

Let's go back to my infamous column here on Dec. 4, 1995. Was I right about the Internet collapsing this year? And in particular, was I right that CD-ROMs sent through Federal Express - instead of the bogging Internet - would be this year's information superhighway?

To read that first sarcastic collapse column and to see for yourself the 50 more serious columns written since then, see http://www.infoworld.com/cgi-bin/displayNew.pl?/metcalfe/bmlist.htm.

Okay, so last December I predicted that Internet stocks would collapse in January: "A hurried search for greater fools to absorb projected continuing losses won't pan out this time." I was wrong, greater fools were found, and they lost big.

Last year I also predicted that "we'll discover in 1996 that the vast majority [of new Internet users] surfed for several hours and then went back to watching TV." This was sarcasm.

I predicted that "the local telcos will escape demonopolization ... their motivation to lower costs on high-speed Internet access will wither, fatally constipating the Web." I was all too right about the telcos' escaping demonopolization.

I predicted that "another series of major security breaches will drive the rest of the productive Internet ... out of reach." The major breaches did not occur, but the flight from the insecure, unreliable, and bogging Internet to private intranets for employees accelerated. And now people are even building private extranets for customers.

I predicted that "early initiatives to migrate to Internet Protocol Next Generation [IPNG] will add to a general loss of compatibility." IPNG migration failed to get started in 1996, so losses of compatibility lie ahead. Now IPv6 is suddenly called "research."

I stated that "the Internet is intermittently overloaded, and the TCP/IP architecture doesn't deal well with overloads." Well, it was undeniably the World Wide Wait during 1996, due mainly to slow servers and, as I was to discover later, lost packets - see http://compute.merit.edu/netnow/.

I stated that "the Internet's naive flat-rate business model is incapable of financing the new capacity it would need to serve continued growth" and predicted it would change. To say the trend is toward flat-rate pricing, just because America Offline is doing it, is to debunk global warming during winter.

I predicted that "without video, the Internet will lack the energy needed to sustain its current expansion." Today's continuing expansion apparently does not rely on what most people would call video.

I predicted that "the Internet traffic carrying arguments about pornography on the Internet will during 1996 swamp the actual pornography." This happened. And with the Communications Decency Act now at the Supreme Court, the problem will only get worse for you porno hounds.

And I predicted, as my parting shot, that "in 1996, CD-ROMs through Federal Express will emerge as the information superhighway." Let's dwell on this snide and unlikely prediction, which surprised even me by turning out to be more true than false.

According to a study of 2,000 randomly selected U.S. households, the number of households with PCs grew from 35 percent to 36 percent during the first half of 1996. Odyssey, in San Francisco, found that households with online services, including the Internet, grew more rapidly - from 11 percent to 14 percent - during the same period. But the penetration of CD-ROMs grew faster still, from 15 percent to 20 percent.

Do CD-ROMs get used? The average nationwide hours per week of usage for personal purposes is 107.5 million hours for CD-ROM vs. only 87.4 million for online time.

And what about satisfaction? About 68 percent of CD-ROM users said they are very satisfied, while only 52 percent with online services they use at home said they are satisfied.

Or, as Odyssey President Nick Donatiello summarizes, CD-ROM has greater market penetration than online, it's growing faster than online, it's used more, and consumers are more satisfied with CD-ROM than with online. I rest my case.

Next week, having not learned my lesson, I'll sketch next year's progress on the Internet, the bogging and collapsing of which will get worse before it gets better.

(Bob Metcalfe invented Ethernet in 1973 and founded 3Com Corp. in 1979. He receives email at metcalfe@infoworld.com.)

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