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Figured out the internet? Think again. As it enters its fourth decade, the first big lesson is obvious: It is reordering business. The second is more useful: The Net's path is so hard to predict that long-term business strategies based on short-run experience could put a business at risk.

Leonard Kleinrock, a UCLA professor present on Day 1 of the Internet in September 1969, recounted in Advertising Age last week how Internet visionaries knew they were onto something big -- and how, time and again, the Net moved in directions that could not be predicted. It's easy to assume the Net will evolve simply, and grandly, from its current state: Banner ads will morph into highly targeted, rich TV-like ads, e-tailing will be ubiquitous, the dot-coms ruling the stock market today will rule the Net and world tomorrow. It makes sense to build near-term marketing strategies based on where the Net appears headed. But to assume the long-term Net is about the World Wide Web, PCs and scrappy dot-coms is to miss the big picture. The Internet has prospered because no one is in charge, leaving the Net free to move when an innovation takes hold. The smart business plan remains flexible, leaving room to change course when the Net heads in its next direction.

"We're in the Stone Age of the Internet," said our professor, who bets the Net will change more dramatically in the next 30 years than it did in its first 30.

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