Fast-forward to the online world. If you have a Web browser on your computer, you pay a monthly fee for the ability to surf through thousands of Web pages, stopping occasionally at Time Inc.'s Pathfinder but spending more time finding quirky, obscure sites-comic strips, a guide to the Napa Valley region-that pique your interest.
You wait patiently for balky servers to download graphics, and you put up with "under construction" signs and sites that sometimes seem to have disappeared into ether, even though you just visited yesterday.
Now comes word that some Web publishers are planning to make Internet users register and eventually pay for access to their sites. HotWired has registered users from its inception; Pathfinder is just starting to.
They say it's because they want to be able to better track who goes online, how often, and how long they stay, things that can't be done if the 'net user remains anonymous. They admit they're not making any money on the Web, and none of them are in the business of providing free information.
The problem is, it's too soon to start breaking up the Web into finite little segments where sometimes you have to pay and sometimes you don't. And trust me, it will be a complete turnoff for all the new Webbies if the first thing they see everywhere they want to go is a subscription form requiring a new password.
Outside Online has already backpedaled on its registration policy. The one-month-old service last week opened its site to anyone, saying users found it too cumbersome to register and remember a password each time they had to log on. Outside plans to reinstate the registration policy-and, eventually, a subscription fee-at a later date.
Cable subscribers have bought into premium services like HBO and Showtime because they offer uncut, recent films without commercial interruption. There has been talk for several years in the cable industry of creating "tiered" services appealing to discrete demographics, but consumers have balked at the idea of paying extra simply to get, say, the cooking channel.
The same applies to the Web. I'm not saying it shouldn't be commercial and money shouldn't be made there. And I'm not saying marketers should be expected to foot the entire bill for these publishers, although there doesn't seem to be a lack of interest in paying to associate a brand name like AT&T or MCI with an online publication.
It's a question of value and of timing. Publishers that are moving to a subscription model are signaling that the days of experimentation on the Web are over for them. But the same won't be true for consumers.
Web publishers out to count their subscribers by making them pay will be left counting them on the fingers of one hand instead.M
Debra Aho Williamson is managing editor of the Interactive Media & Marketing section.