I went to Internet World in Los Angeles this month looking for the birth of a hot new trend, but instead spent most of my time tripping over the corpses of previous trends.
The problem with trends that live in Internet time is that, like the original Star Trek episode about a suddenly geriatric Enterprise crew (proving conclusively that William Shatner doesn't get better with age), they grow old and die prematurely. But on the Web there's always been an energetic new puppy to help us forget about the one that was just put to sleep.
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Remember the rush three years ago to develop information-rich Web sites? Now, there's lots of Web content and not much revenue. Two years ago, Java was going to let the masses run a single application on any operating system. Now, 100 percent pure Java is "write once, run anywhere"—as long as "anywhere" is where Microsoft isn't.
Nowhere is this shift from Net trend to fad more evident than with "push." One year ago, the technology to automatically deliver information and software to a user's PC over the Internet pulled companies onto the bandwagon every few seconds: FreeLoader, Intermind, IFusion, inCommon, Marimba, BackWeb, DataChannel, Wayfarer, PointCast, Infobeat, Bullseye, and others that died before ever launching. Even Microsoft and Netscape got in on it.
A backlash soon followed. A study last April from Optimal Networks Corp. suggested that nearly a fifth of all network traffic at several Fortune 1000 companies was due to "pushed" content, corporations started limiting the use of PointCast and its ilk, and the US Air Force alleged that push products were a security risk and banned them from all of its networks.
As a result, this year's Internet World wasn't just not a "push" show—it was a show in which companies, old and new, scrambled like hell to not be identified as "push." Of the few former pushers there, BackWeb touted "knowledge distribution," DataChannel flogged "corporate intranet publishing," and Wayfarer emphasized "Webcasting."
Employees for new player WorldFlash Software (www.worldflash.com), which has a customizable news ticker for the Windows desktop, mumbled something unintelligible when asked if they were "push." A rep for 3M proudly showed off Post-it Software Notes for Internet Designers, a nifty product that lets Web site visitors drag a yellow Post-it Note from a Web site to their desktop, use it as a bookmark to return to the site, and eventually have the Note content updated remotely. But he candidly admitted they don't call the remote updating "push" because consumers recoil at the thought of "having it in their face." "Push" is not only no longer a trend—efforts to wipe out every trace of the term's existence have turned it into an Orwellian untrend.
This doesn't mean a former trend can't be a viable business. There are slowly profitable content sites. Java has found a niche in Web site enhancement and custom corporate programming. And some followers of the-technology-formerly-known-as-push are building businesses based on solving specific problems for a well-defined set of customers.
But little seems ready to rush in to replace push in the Internet hype vacuum, and that's not necessarily a bad thing. A lull would be a welcome break to help Internet companies figure out what business they're really in, rather than continuously sucking in star-struck investors and expelling superheated and expensive hype.
If anything, the hot new Internet trend is striving for profitability—and no longer, apparently, at any cost.
It's a small I-world
Though Spring Internet World in Los Angeles lacked a hot trend, there was cool stuff. Redmond-based Conversational Computing Corp. (www.conversa.com) showed off the new Conversa Web, a $39.95 voice-controlled Web browser. It recognizes spoken commands, automatically assigns text to Web page graphics so they can be voice "clicked," verbally acknowledges instructions, and—perhaps best of all—plays music as a Web page is loading, so you can turn away and actually do something productive until the music stops.
Miros (www.miros.com) unveiled TrueFace Web, software that works with a camera perched atop a PC monitor to replace typed Web site passwords with a "faceprint." The software also keeps track of failed attempts to get in—and shows the photo of the offender. It may spawn a trend to masked computing.
The single most important, and frightening, indicator that the Internet has hit the mainstream? A booth for Brown Raysman Millstein Felder & Steiner LLP—a firm of Internet lawyers.
Frank Catalano, a Seattle-area analyst for interactive multimedia and software companies, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Complete Byte Me archives are available at www.catalanoconsulting.com
WorldFlash Software site
Conversational Computing Corp.'s page