"The more I find out, the less I know."

Friday - November 14, 2003 at 03:37 AM in

Top Ten Internet Fads


At the risk of sounding much older than I really am, I've been on the Internet since 1987. Writing about the Social Networking fad last night made me think about other fads which have come and gone over the years. A fad, in my mind, is an idea or technology which is briefly popular, but can't outlast its own novelty value. Once people get over the newness of it all, there isn't really anything special left.

Here, off the cuff, are the ten which stand out most in my mind.
10. Live Customer Service
At one point, when companies were selling anything online (see #2), someone realized that customer service was going to be an important part of the online retail experience. Of course, simply posting an E-mail address and a toll-free phone number wouldn't do! E-mail doesn't satisfy the need for live service, and a toll-free phone number was, well, so 80's.

Several companies jumped in to serve the need for a true Internet solution for live service. Some provided text chat technology, others went so far as to do Voice-over-IP (see #8) to the customer's web browser (you were SOL if you didn't happen to have a microphone connected to your computer). There were even a couple which did video. All of these were accessed though big "Click Here For Live Assistance" buttons.

Aside from the fact that many of these technologies simply didn't work very well, it seems that nobody bothered to ask customers what sort of live service they actually wanted. What most customers really wanted to do was pick up the phone and dial a toll-free phone number, or else send an E-mail.

9. Flash Mobs
Find a bunch of people who don't know each other, have them all gather at some specified time and place, do something off-the-wall, and then go away. That's pretty much the summary of a Flash Mob, the Big Thing of the First Half of 2003. The Internet is key because that's how you organize the Flash Mob, and post the photos afterwards.

Okay, this was cool the first couple of times. We have now proven that the Internet allows you to organize people to do stuff in the real world, and not just online. Somehow, it just doesn't seem to have much more staying power.

8. VoIP (Rounds 1 and 2)
Using the Internet for phone calls is becoming a hot topic again, which makes it easy to forget that this is actually the third time this particular technology has made an appearance.

I wasn't sure if I should call VoIP a "fad" or not, since there is some technology here which actually is useful, and many major phone companies are actually using the underlying technology for their internal networks. On the other hand, both of the previous appearances in consumer form were clearly premature, so those at least are fads.

The first time, it was strictly for the determined. Imagine using your PC as a really bad CB radio, and you get the basic idea. Most conversations were along the lines of "Can you hear me? Isn't this cool! We're using the Internet for a phone call!" The listener typically heard, "-an y-----ear--e? ------ool! We're u--ng the -nter------all!"

My own first exposure to VoIP technology was in graduate school in 1994 or 1995. Two of the postdocs in my research group were testing VoIP as a way to save money on our conference calls with a team we collaborated with overseas. They had set up two SGI workstations in adjacent offices, and attempted to set up a VoIP call. They closed the two office doors, and this is what I heard from my cubicle:

Postdoc #1: "Hello? Hello? Hello? Can you hear me? Can you hear me? Hello? CAN YOU HEAR ME?"

<office door opens, Postdoc #2 walks out into Postdoc #1's office>

Postdoc #2: "I think the whole floor can hear you."

7. Thin Clients
Hey, we've got a web browser now. What do we need Windows (or MacOS) for anymore? We can access everything through a browser!

This, in a nutshell, was the argument for the Thin Client. Conceived as a way to break the Microsoft monopoly on the desktop, a Thin Client would be nothing more than a web browser on a screen. Thus (the theory went) it would be cheaper to build than a desktop PC, and all the applications would run on the server with the Thin Client running the interface.

This idea was so wrong, I don't even know where to begin. For starters, this is nothing more than a reversion to the old mainframe computing days, with a prettier face. So instead of a dumb terminal, we now have a GUI-based browser, but there was a reason the world shifted away from mainframes and dumb terminals. At least I think there was.

Next, it turns out that in order to do a lot of the fancier stuff a browser is expected to do, you need to have things like a sound card, a pretty good (for 1996) graphics processor, and a hard drive to cache data. Oh, and it had to run Java, too. Guess what! Suddenly we've got a whole operating system again. And why exactly can't we use Windows for this?

By the time someone actually built a Thin Client (I think it was Sun, but my memory is imperfect here), it turned out to be significantly more expensive than the sub-$1,000 personal computers which were making an appearance by then, and much less capable.

6. Digital Personae
Like the digital flotsam of a thousand shipwrecked business plans, you can still see the occasional Digital Persona wash up on a web site somewhere. The typical encounter is something like this: you go to a corporate web site somewhere, and start reading the web page. Suddenly, the web page starts talking to you! You notice an animation of someone talking in the corner of the window (typically an attractive young woman), giving a sales pitch with bad lip-sync. Sometimes, there's a box to type in questions and get synthesized responses, but more often, you get the pitch and she shuts up.

Believe it or not, at one time companies spent real money developing these things for their web sites, on the theory that it would make the web experience more "personal." More like interacting with a real person. There were even companies whose entire technology was built around improving these Digital Personae. I remember one in particular which had groundbreaking technology for improving the lip-sync, and they even got venture capital to do it. I think they were called RealLips or something like that.

The problem is that (a) if the customer wanted to interact with a real person, he or she would have picked up the phone or driven to a real store, and (b) once the novelty value wears off, the digital persona is absolutely nothing like a real person. Why do we want to interact with real people? Because we want to have social relationships. You can't have a social relationship with a piece of software.

File this one under "Microsoft Bob ."

5. The .sig Virus
Back in the days when everyone on the Internet was running UNIX from a command line, the way you would attach a "signature" to your E-mail was by creating a little text file called ".sig". Whatever was in that file would be appended to outgoing E-mail.

Sometime after the Morris Worm , the first major "virus" (technically a worm) on the Internet, this (and similar) text started appearing at the bottom of people's E-mails:

Hi, I'm a .sig virus! Copy me to your .sig file and help me propagate!

Of course, this was so cute and silly that lots of people really did copy it into their .sig files, allowing the .sig virus to propagate.

After a while, the novelty wore off, leaving the philosophy majors to argue that it really was, technically, a virus, since it contained instructions allowing it to self-replicate. It just happened that those instructions were carried out by a human rather than a computer. The computer science majors said, no, it's just a meme, not a virus. The rest of us went on with our lives.

4. WAP
WAP is the sound a clunky Internet-enabled cellphone makes when you throw it at a brick wall in frustration.

It also sounds for Wireless Access Protocol, and was an early attempt to squeeze big web pages into a teeny-tiny little screen. I'm not exaggerating in the slightest when I say that billions (with a "B") of dollars were spent on this idea, despite several subtle problems:

A. Viewing even a small web page on a screen with 12 lines of text is almost completely useless.

B. The per-kilobyte charges some cellphone companies were imposing were the equivalent of something like $100/hour for dialup Internet access.

C. Very few people actually wanted to surf the web from their cellphones in the first place.

In the last year, we've come full circle: the cellphone companies are once again selling gigantic Internet-enabled cellphones and expensive data plans with the hope of getting us to surf the web by the minute. Of course, everything is different now. Now we have better displays (in color even), and instead of WAP, we've got something called 3G.

3G is approximately the acceleration required to crush a clunky Internet-enabled cellphone in frustration.

3. Digital Acronyms (B2C, B2B, B2G, G2C, P2P, etc.)
The sociologists will tell you that one sign of "in group" behavior is the use of special language, words and phrases only understood by members of the crowd who "get it."

Whatever.

All I know is that these stupid acronyms with the number 2 standing for the word "to" drive me up the wall.

There was a time, around 1998 or 1999, when every VC PowerPoint contained at least one of these acronyms on every slide. Sometimes several. Anyone who invented a new one was a true visionary.

No wonder so many venture-backed startups failed.

Thankfully, I'm seeing these less and less often.

By the way, the acronyms I listed stand for (respectively): Business to Consumer, Business to Business, Business to Government, Government to Consumer (or Citizen), and Peer to Peer. Or maybe it was Bob to Charlie, Bob to Bill, Bill to George, George to Charlie, and Peter to Paul. I can never remember.

2. Anything Sold Online
Some things, like books and music, make a lot of sense to sell online. They're cheap to ship, and there's so much selection that it s hard for a retail store to stock everything.

Other things, like pet food, make no sense whatsoever to sell online.

A lot of supposedly very intelligent venture capitalists couldn't understand the difference.

I'm thinking of writing a self-help book about this called "Smart Money, Dumb Investments."

1. PointCast
For those who weren't on the Internet in 1997, let me describe what PointCast was.

PointCast was a screen saver. No ordinary screen saver, though. PointCast was a screen saver which was going to revolutionize computing and change the world.

PointCast wouldn't just show fish, or geometric patterns. PointCast (make sure you're sitting down for this) would display news headlines and stock quotes! Yes! And that wasn't all. PointCast was so unique, so radical, that a whole new category of business was created: push. Push meant that information would be "pushed" to people, rather than waiting for people to visit a web site and "pull" the data to them.

This whole concept was so cool that there were people (sadly, I was one of them) who would wait for their computer's screen savers to activate, just to watch the PointCast news headlines and stock tickers. It was mesmerizing. Bump the mouse, and you'd have to start all over again.

Push was so revolutionary, that there were other companies founded just to build technology to manage the flood of network traffic which PointCast was going to generate.

There were a few people who stood up in this madness (proudly, I was one of them) who pointed out that E-mail was a form of push, and one which was far more technologically advanced, more efficient, more flexible, more usable, friendlier, cheaper, and already being used for real business applications. None of this mattered, though, since E-mail didn't display news headlines and stock quotes on a screen saver.

(Oh, and as a geeky aside, PointCast wasn't really push anyway, since it simply used an internal web browser to get new headlines and quotes from PointCast's web site every few minutes. Technically, PointCast was more like a web browser set to auto-refresh. Classic, and boring, pull.)

At least Wired magazine came to its senses after a few years and published a thoughtful obituary .

Did I miss your favorite?
These ten are just the ones which come to mind. I'm happy to hear other suggestions. Send me feedback.

(This article is also available at kuro5hin .)

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