Column: Intranet ads are coming to a PC near you

Venture capitalist John Doerr at Kleiner, Perkins -- perhaps you've heard of his clients Lotus, Sun, America Online and Netscape? -- has a decidedly provocative take on the future of Internet advertising.

Venture capitalist John Doerr at Kleiner, Perkins -- perhaps you've heard of his clients Lotus, Sun, America Online and Netscape? -- has a decidedly provocative take on the future of Internet advertising. He says he believes the most explosive growth in virtual advertising will occur on intranets.

Because Doerr is a guy who literally puts his money where his mouth is and outperforms the S&P 500 while doing it -- I tend to take his prognostications seriously. The formats and genres for this nascent generation of intranet programming are already evolving. You could make a case that a manager firing up her Yahoo search engine to do some market research offers a perfect example of an intranet advertising target: She's seeing those commercially sponsored banners as she browses the 'net on company time.

Is that the emerging future of business-to-business advertising? Are our LANs and WANs becoming the cable TV and billboards of the corporate world?

Yes. Take a look at Cupertino, California-based PointCast, which offers a commercially sponsored Internet/intranet news service and claims a quarter of a million new "viewers" a month. It may be a victim of its own advertising success. Several clients have complained that PointCast gobbles too much network bandwidth (PointCast has promised upgrades that halve the bandwidth burden). What's more, these clients try to restrict the casual use of the service, which runs as a screen saver during PC downtime. For all intents and purposes, PointCast offers a perfect prototype of ad-supported intranets.

Theoretically, of course, it's tough to figure out the practical difference between browsing an ad-sponsored Web page on your desktop and, say, reading The Wall Street Journal or -- dare I mention it? -- Computerworld at your desk. As more and more business publications assume Web-based incarnations, it seems inevitable that business-to-business advertising will be a staple of the corporate medium.

Companies will have to decide whether their employees are becoming better-informed and more productive with an ad-supported intranet or whether commercial infiltration represents a deleterious distraction. It doesn't require great imagination to see how clever suppliers can hot-link their best customers to special promotions and "Webfotainment" that attracts repeat visits and new business. Just as intranets can blur the line between information and interaction, they will make it increasingly difficult to distinguish between advertising and vital data.

The growing commercialism of the Internet and intranets invariably intersects at new opportunities. Former Lotus chief Jim Manzi, who now runs Nets Inc, doesn't foresee banner-driven intranet ads, but he anticipates a blurring between electronic commerce and virtual advertising. The more transactions that occur on intranets, the more likely it is that people will see some kind of ads on their screens. You think Java will only download apps?

IS folks are doomed -- excuse me, destined -- to manage yet another tension: How do they codesign the commercialism of their own intranets even as they build filters, screens and agents to minimise the potential time-wasting aspects of intranet ads in-house? Like it or not, intranet advertisements -- in whatever form -- will be as common as spreadsheets on the screens of gold-collar knowledge workers. The intranet ads may be blunt; they may be subtle. Either way, their presence will have to be monitored and managed. But, hey, there's no business like show business.

(Michael Schrage is a research associate at the MIT Media Lab and author of No More Teams! His Internet address is schrage@media.mit.edu.)

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