S U C K

"a fish, a barrel, and a smoking gun"
for 23 March 1998. Updated every WEEKDAY.
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
Upstart

 

[Browser Wars]

Ah, those

were the days. Every morning

we'd creak into work, fire up

the ol' PC, point its virtual

rabbit ears at the Web, and

there it would be - the Netscape

homepage. Trumpeting company

initiatives like a police state

dutifully applauding the local

autocrat, its content was

anything but gripping or, for

most of us, relevant. Yet still

we came - we came by the

millions, many of us hourly. But

these pilgrimages were not acts

of intent. They were rather

artifacts representing either

our cluelessness or laziness -

i.e., either our inability or

unwillingness to go through the

30-second process of resetting

our browsers' default pages to

something more interesting.

 

In this, the Netscape homepage

became the online equivalent of

the blinking 12:00 on our VCRs.

Netscape PR pulled out the stops

to make it seem more like the

hottest show on television,

reeling off periodic

McDonaldland boasts about the

site's astonishing popularity.

Netscape traffic exceeds 80

million hits per day! 100

million! Traffic was

conveniently measured in hits

rather than pageviews. Soon

Netscape's homepage was bloating

up even faster than its storied

co-founder, sprinkled evermore

liberally with GIFs and other

hit-generating elements -

leading the more cynical among

us to whisper that this was part

of a cunning campaign to

heighten that daily hit count.

 

Who can really blame anyone for

pumping or hyping up their

traffic? As the saying goes,

hits count. And once you get

that traffic firehose in your

hands, there's almost no limit

to what deep-pocketed neighbors

will pay to have a sliver of its

stream directed toward their

parched lawns. Consider the vast

sums that booksellers,

stock-quoters, album-peddlers

and others have shelled out to

get featured on popular search

engines. Consider the staggering

US$20 million that Cybermeals

paid for premium positioning on AOL.

Consider the high fivin'

$3-billion-plus market cap

that today's traffic kingpin, Yahoo,

has racked up. And perhaps most

significantly, think of the

dozens of yearly millions that

Netscape rakes in from

auctioning off premier positions

on its Search page.

 

[Undending Search]

It is in

this context - the context of

the high-rent entry-point

landlord - that Microsoft's

anticipated Start page

should be considered.

 

Industry rumor has

it that this will launch later

this year, and that it will

feature an integrated collection

of Internet media and services.

We can safely guess at what

creative offerings these will

include news headlines,

personalized stock quotes, local

sports scores and weather; - plus

prominent links into Microsoft's

Hotmail, Microsoft's CarPoint,

Expedia, Investor, and other

such sites. Informed gossip has

it that Start's initial

incarnation will be about as

wooden as most Redmond-brewed

media, and no more impressive

than any of Microsoft's 1.0

releases. But you can bet that

it will be immensely more

compelling than that old

Netscape front page. And even in

a worst-case scenario, it will

probably edge out Netcenter -

Netscape's belated and poorly

executed attempt to redress

years of homepage neglect.

 

Pumping up Start will be the

twin forces that were so helpful

to Netscape's early traffic

tallies - cluelessness and

laziness, both still popular

favorites. If anything,

cluelessness is just leaving the

foothills for its big march on

the summit. Think back: Early

on, the Web was dominated by the

technically savvy - folks whose

idea of a big Saturday night was

doing kernel hacks on their cell

phones. People like that can

reset a browser about as easily

as they can flash a Vulcan peace

sign. So in its day,

netscape.com's truest friend was

laziness. But today, anyone with

even the faintest technical itch

is an Internet old-timer. By the

year 2003 - when those here now

are outnumbered by those yet to

come by a ratio of 4 to 1 - this

will be even more true.

Great-grandmas, your high school

guidance counselor, people who

struggle to set their digital

alarm clocks - they'll soon

outnumber the Unix hackers among

us by ratios of thousands to

one. Ask them to reset their

default pages, and they'll be as

helpless as calves on a Hormel

disassembly line. No amount of

help files, online

documentation, or talking

paperclips will change this.

 

[Future Posers]

Judging from today's trends, we

can guess that the browser world

of 2003 will closely mirror

today's OS market, with

Microsoft holding more than 90

percent of the market share and

an eclectic clutter of also-rans

carving up the crumbs. Of

course, Netscape hasn't signed

off on this future. But the

simple, brutal fact is that

Internet Explorer is a better

product than Navigator. And

as Microsoft continues to

firehose resources into IE's

engineering team, and as

Netscape continues to hemorrhage

market value, it seems unlikely

that the humbled hotshots of

Mountain View will be able to

keep up with, let alone overtake

their rival. Even if legal

actions fully annul Microsoft's

vast distributive advantages -

and we can't safely assume that

Justice will succeed in tossing

much more than the odd speed

bump in front of the IE

bulldozer - product and muscle

advantages will inexorably lead

IE to domination.

 

Now think of

Microsoft's Start page, version

5.0 - that Siamese companion of

Windows '03. As noted, the

diminishing technical masses

will no more think about

tweaking their settings to

launch to My Yahoo, say, than

they will consider hefting a

wrench to reconfigure the

channel settings on their

televisions. As for the oft-lazy

elite, most of us did nothing to

avoid netscape.com's tedium. So

why will we act any differently

in the face of Start -

particularly if it's hopped up

with lush broadband content

delivered via PBS' vertical

blanking interval or some other

clever channel? Indeed, unlike

yesterday's Netscape, tomorrow's

Microsoft will work hard to give

us no reason to change our

default settings, so in all

likelihood even the unlazy and

unclueless will rarely bother.

 

[Atari Art]

Start's role as the Net's

de facto gatekeeper will loom large

as Web access steadily becomes

integral to every TV set,

telephone, car dashboard, and

white collar cubicle; - and as the

Internet becomes a channel for

CD quality audio, full-frame

video, business-quality

telephony, and other broadband

delights, not to mention to

enough commerce to make today's

catalog industry seem puny.

Because, for those of us who

start at Start, convenience and

inertia will tend to steer us

toward Expedia, Carpoint,

 

Microsoft Investor, and whatever

lucky (and, no doubt,

high-paying) third parties

Microsoft anoints when we need

basic Internet information and

services. Of course, we'll all

be free to leave Start to soak

up the news at The New York

Times, to do our trading at

Schwab, and to carry out our

Internet searches on Yahoo. But

convenience and inertia are

powerful forces - just think of

how often you searched the car

radio dial manually rather than

punching into your preset

stations back before you had

that fancy automatic "seek"

button. Microsoft has done

rather well by its dominance of

the operating system, raising a

fair amount of industry ire in

the process. That the government

has been a relative latecomer to

the anti-Microsoft camp is not

surprising. After all, the

subsumption of the screensaver,

say, into the OS isn't the sort

of thing that gets all that many

angry constituents on the phone.

Also - the government's posture

toward monopolies in industry

has historically been

ambivalent. Not so in media.

Although they are being relaxed,

cross-ownership regulations in

media markets remain among the

country's most stringent

industrial policies. Public

opinion is also much more

readily mobilized by apparent

threats to the freeness and

openness of the media - let's

call this "the First Amendment"

for short - than by the

prospects of oligopolistic price

fixing in some markets.

 

In jockeying to control the launch

page of almost every early

21st-century Web user, Microsoft

may be setting itself up to win

an even bigger prize than it

grabbed by controlling the OS of

almost every late-20th-century

computer. But before it cashes

in on this, it could well face

down opponents like the ACLU,

the post-Lewinsky American

media, and perhaps even an

American people that for now

seems to see the company in

largely a benign light. Netscape

- which gave Microsoft the

fright and, briefly, the fight

of its life - could come to look

like a pushover by comparison.

 

But look at the big guns

Microsoft will have on its side.

Over here, laziness and

cluelessness; over there,

convenience and inertia.

 

We don't stand a chance.

 
courtesy of Wun O'Wunne