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NET.WORKING: The Next Big Thing: Some peace and quiet

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I was banging around on the Web the other day, getting some work done, everything going very efficiently, and suddenly it hit me: Internet time was finally slowing down!

Excited, I forced myself to calm down and think it through. Yes, indeed, it had been many months since I had been forced to download a new-fangled software tool to view something online. Neither of my browsers was outdated, both of my operating systems were stable, and my business models still made sense -- after a whole year!

Perhaps you disagree that the pace of change has slowed. Well then, tell me the last time someone announced Internet plans that surprised you (and I'm not talking about just another bizarre IPO, merger attempt or acquisition). Many Net programmers are working feverishly on improvements, upgrades, tweaks and ever-improving measurement, but no one's promising radical new breakthroughs anymore.

I've been monitoring all this professionally since 1994, and I can affirm that this is unprecedented in the Internet's short, but highly accelerated, lifespan as a commercial medium. The joke about "Internet time" is an ancient one (in Internet years, that is), created out of the Web's chaotic creation in a Big Bang-style explosion. The Net's early hyperexpansion churned software, ideas, companies, plans, models and hype so fast that it was all but impossible to plan reliably for a future any further out than about six weeks.

To take just the most recent example: About a year ago, the idea of desktop push channels suddenly overshadowed every other model for doing business on the Internet. Pointcast, Marimba and other push suppliers were cover stories in every business magazine. Netscape and Microsoft engaged in a brutal war to sign up content providers for desktop channels. Surely, everyone felt, this was the Really Big Idea, at last! Alas, within six months the entire push era came and went.

But that was last year, when living in Internet time really meant something.

Notice what has happened since: Those same push companies no longer promise revolution. Instead, they're finding more realistic business niches, in intranets and other more targeted, limited applications.

You can see the same narrowing of goals happening all over the Internet industry: Netscape no longer promises profits through better Net technology; instead, it now proclaims itself as one more Web publisher among many. First Virtual, which once promised a radical financial breakthrough in developing e-money, is now repositioned in the direct marketing e-mail business. Even Wired magazine, the radical publishing dream that defined the whole concept of the digital society, has been toned down, swallowed up by the slick Conde Nast empire and shorn of all its Web businesses.

I don't mean this to sound unduly negative; this is what companies do when the smoke clears and the real landscape becomes clear. Across America, companies big and small are finally straightening out their Web organization and strategy. It's been a long haul (in Internet years, anyway), but now the sheer weight and momentum of all this slow-moving commercial progress have generated enough gravity to start pulling the Internet down to earth.

And that's a good thing. It has been an exhilarating ride, but right now the idea of everything staying put for a while is exciting in itself. Believe me, there's no one sitting around at the Fortune 1000 saying, "Boy, I sure wish someone would invent a whole new programming language to replace everything we built this year!"

What companies want right now is a year or two of stability so they can get out of the business of constantly testing new hardware and software and into the business of testing, measuring and refining their e-commerce plans. Then you can bring on the next Really Chaotic Idea.

David Klein is associate publisher-editor of the Ad Age Group. You can e-mail him at dklein@crain.com.

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