Powers of Ten, Powers of Five

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If the number of Internet start-ups seems overwhelming
today, think about what it will be like in 10 years, when there are 1,000 times more such
ventures.

Marc Andreessen, the wunderkind who created the software
that became Netscape, thinks about it. He says 500 new companies jump into the Internet
arena every month. At that rate, the Internet business doubles in size every year.
That's a 1,000-fold increase in Internet activity during the decade ahead.

"It means that 99.9 percent of what will eventually
exist hasn't been deployed yet," Andreessen contends. Needless to say, many of
those ventures won't survive until the end of the year, let alone the end of the next
decade. But it puts a mind-boggling scale on a business that materialized before our very
eyes.

Of course, Andreessen's hype is self-serving for his
own new venture: LoudCloud Inc., a technology company that will develop infrastructure and
support for Web businesses. The company will be a centralized resource for all of those
start-ups that can't find or afford in-house technical talent, such as software
engineers, to handle their growth.

Outsourcer LoudCloud will develop software for electronic
commerce, advanced data mining, hosting centers and other unspecified high-tech business
requirements. With about 20 engineers so far -- many of them rich Netscape refugees --
LoudCloud (a clever wordplay on the Net's abstract and invisible network) is
preparing to open its doors by early 2000.

Andreessen's growth equation made me think of
wonderful short film Powers of Ten by Charles and Ray Eames.

The prodigious industrial design/architecture/exhibit
creator/packaging team produced the film more than 30 years ago, using
then-state-of-the-art special effects that are archaic by today's standards. Yet the
breathtaking result offers a remarkable math lesson and a vision of the worlds we cannot
see -- yet.

The film -- currently on display in an Eames retrospective
at New York's Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum -- zooms straight up from a picnic
in a Chicago lakeside park.

Every 10 seconds, the image grows by one magnitude -- from
one square meter on the picnic blanket, to 10 square meters, then 100 square meters (the
park area) in the first 20 seconds, then 1,000 square meters, then 1 million square meters
(a regional U.S. landscape) and on through the solar system, and outward to the edges of
the universe -- in 10-fold increments -- in less than two minutes.

After a quick zoom back to the picnic blanket, the
"negative powers" of 10 are similarly displayed by getting under a man's
skin, moving quickly through molecules to subatomic particles.

With its viewer-friendly exponential explanations, Powers
of Ten
thought-provokingly forces you to look at everyday things from a different
perspective. Each new vantage point reminds you how quickly the environment changes.

Andreessen figures into another formula we're now
confronting -- let's call it the "power of five." While some Internet
pioneers celebrated last month's 30th anniversary of the "invention of the
Internet" -- no, Al Gore was not present -- to most of us "civilians," the
Internet is all-too-often synonymous with the Web.

And by the reckoning of many people, the Web's birth
started with Netscape -- originally known as Mosaic, the software program that Andreessen
wrote. Some designate August 1995 as the arrival of Netscape, but that was merely its IPO
date, which set a standard for Web stock performance.

Actually, Netscape began life in early 1994, and it came
into its own just about five years ago this fall. During that period, it began to
distribute its free Web browser, encouraging the creation of Web sites and triggering a
boom in Internet (i.e., Web) access.

Hence, the "old-timers" among Web businesses are
beginning to celebrate their five-year benchmarks. Each day seems to bring an announcement
of a fifth-anniversary celebration. There's a smattering of hype, a dollop of
nostalgia for the Web sites that have actually endured a half-decade.

While these self-congratulatory celebrations are a bit
ingenuous (we all know people with cars and clothes that have endured a half-decade), they
are reminders about the power of the past five years, and how quickly the Web (and the
Internet) has become integral to our lives and business.

Five years: That's barely 1,800 days. Even you can
actually remember back that far. Yet the power of these five years has created this
"new economy" we're embracing. The almost incomprehensible growth that
Andreessen describes for the decade ahead should encourage and scare existing companies,
whether or not they operate on Internet time.

Most of the new ventures Andreessen envisions will be
ultra-specialized, creating tools, services and technologies for specific Internet
applications. Some will be for broadband businesses, and many will function across the
next frontiers of multiple interactive platforms.

By any measure, the power of these timetables and of these
often altered viewpoints reminds us how hard it will be to keep track of time and place in
cyberspace.

I-Way Patrol columnist Gary Arlen is now receiving e-mail
via curmudgeon@columnist.com.

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