Top Stories from the Business/Finance pages of the International Herald Tribune,
Monday, January 2, 1995

Information Super-Thing: How Close Are We Really?


By Brad Spurgeon International Herald Tribune
Paris -- The Internet is the greatest invention since the printing press, as most people have heard through one medium or another too many times since Al Gore last January called for a toll-free information super-you-know-what.

The truth about the information super-thing after a year, and all the hype, is that it is still far from being what it is described as being by many of its advocates. Several issues have surfaced over the past year that must be settled before the super-thing will be as popular as television or the printed press.

The World Wide Web and its easy-to-use hypertext browser programs such as Mosaic have revolutionized the facility with which John Doe may traverse the Internet - the prototype of the information super-thing. But what lays at the destination?

The printed press has received plenty of "flaming" from net travelers, including the hip, self-styled "way-new journalism" of writers for Wired magazine.

Much noise was made about Wired's "virtual magazine," called HotWired. But once you log in, what do you find? Intelligent reports from around the world on social, political, or development problems? Nope. The electronic magazines say they plan these things, but at the moment they settle for several pages of the "dirty sock debate," a bulletin board discussion on what fun you may have with dirty socks.

That is not all they or other Web "news" sites offer, of course. If you are like this writer, you marvel at the power you feel logging onto a Web page such as the one devoted to unicycling and finding pictures or videos that you may download.

But then, you might prefer to turn on your television and see a better picture, or perhaps download more quickly by simply ripping the picture out of a printed magazine. What is so great about watching a photograph form slowly on your computer screen?

It's not for the mass market, but what about research? Librarians have been promoters of the Internet for years. Some important data bases, such as the Securities and Exchange Commission's EDGAR, can be accessed through the Internet. But most of the biggest, and most reliable ones are not yet there.

There is nothing on the net comparable to the Nexis newspaper and magazine database. You can log into it via the Internet, but you must subscribe using the 'traditional' method, which involves paying a fat monthly bill.

That raises the problem of the two conflicting philosophies of the Internet.

The Internet has grown out of military, government, and academic networks over the past 30 years. It was designed to help these organizations share information freely and easily. Everything was paid for, of course, by the government and the institutions. Many believe it should stay that way.

Others believe that if it is to survive the inundation of new users, grow stronger and become that super-thing, the Internet will have to be absorbed by business and turn into an advertising platform.

Can this be done? Last April, Canter & Siegel, a Phoenix law firm, used the Internet to advertise one of its services and was swamped by tens of thousands of so-called flame letters for this breach of "netiquette." The letters caused the server through which the firm accessed the network to crash, and it was subsequently kicked off the net.

Most net-hoppers seem to think their favorite daily newspaper should offer its product on the Internet for free, the day before paper publication. Some newspapers offer this service, but they certainly do not pay their bills that way.

The average "virtual magazine," or Web page, is free because it is cheap and created by a guy at home who understands the Web's HTML format and various other nerdy things. A printed newspaper is a collective undertaking that feeds thousands, and must produce quality to survive. That does not mean that a Web newspaper produced by thousands is inconceivable.

Some Internet publications, including HotWired, approach the problem of advertising in an unobtrusive way: Readers are invited to click their computer's mouse on an advertisement icon at the top of a page of text if they are interested in learning more about the company's product or services.

Advertising is just one of the business-related issues on the net. Before big business is conducted through the Internet, the means for processing financial transactions must be worked out.

Software products have been offered electronically for years. But they are either free, or bought on the honor system: You download the software, and if you want to keep it, you send a check by traditional, or "snail" mail. Sending credit-card numbers over the net can be risky.

If the record business were to make a serious attempt to use the net as a platform for selling music, how many teenage nerds would actually pay for the music they might download? Where are the kids who would pay for the latest Crash Test Dummies recording if they can hack it out for free?

Sure, companies such as Wave Systems Corp. have, or are developing, software and hardware that enables the metering of databases. Electronic book distributors exist that allow you to read the opening chapters for free, and when you get to the first clue as to who the murderer is, you have to send a credit card number to receive the rest of the electronic tome.

But this kind of commerce is far from being part of the mores of the computer generation.

The Nexis data base has long been an important tool for researchers who have a mania for finding every reference to, say, the Ren & Stimpy Show, in the world's leading printed press. But writers have started to become aware that those articles they sold to newspapers and got paid for once are earning money many times over for the data-base companies.

Over the past year, writers and their unions, magazines, and even the government have been looking into rewriting the Copyright Act in order to redefine all print rights to include electronic rights. Will the writers accept a metering system, or residuals such as those an actor gets every time his TV show is rerun? Or will they exclude their work from electronic formats altogether, or in certain cases?

Researchers must know that all material from a publication is contained in a database, otherwise the research will often not be worth undertaking.

Many cybernauts distribute their favorite articles from their morning newspaper via E-mail. Others splice them into their own Web pages for free access to anyone, without asking about copyrights. The article may find a larger readership on the net than in its original media. What does the writer or the newspaper get for this?

The super-thing envisioned by Al Gore still faces many obstacles. It is not yet cheap, simple, or good enough to lure the non-initiated away from their televisions and newspapers.

Let's face it, who wants to drink their breakfast coffee over a computer dialog box that says: "Electronic traffic on your Morning Newspaper server is too busy at this time; please log-in again tomorrow at 3:00 a.m. for optimal service."

Internet address:

Note: This was the first CyberScape column published by the IHT. I gave the column its name, and wrote the first article.

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