Worlds Try to Collide, Get Lost Instead

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It was the perfect marginal-media scene: Ugly George, a New York public-access cable TV legend, interviewed Kenny Kramer, the real-life role model and namesake for the wacky
Seinfeld

character.

The fact that the videotaped encounter occurred 10 days ago, in the lobby of New York's Jacob K. Javits Convention Center, was appropriate. It was what surrounded them-the 60,000 people and the digital glitz of Internet World-that was hard to fathom.

In many ways, this George and Kramer were the perfect poster boys for the undisciplined and unfocused Fall Internet World exposition and conference: Guys with big hopes and dreams, amidst the tens of thousands of people who trekked to this autumnal stop along the touring trade show's route.

Two years ago, the New York Internet World had a verve and dynamism that appropriately presaged the coming online bonanza. "Old media" and "brick" businesses, who had realized it was time to figure out their role in the coming Internet frenzy, were everywhere back then.

Last year, the benchmark show was lackadaisical. By late last month, it was downright gloomy. That's certainly a sign of today's Internet mood, but it's not yet clear that the out-of-control event augurs industry-wide distress in the months to come.

On the one hand, Internet World is a victim of its own success. The Fall New York and Spring Los Angeles stanzas have been major launching pads for the tools and services of the past four or five years.

Now, this cornucopia has become too diverse. The range of design tools, distribution systems, syndicated content, back-office technology and support services is mind-boggling, even when the organizers try to corral similar services. Hence the row comprised by AT&T Corp., WorldCom Inc. and Qwest Communications.

The value of a show like this is in trend-spotting: identifying the state of mind that has led so many vendors in the same direction. Wireless Internet services-both narrowband and broadband-are omnipresent, threatening more competition for their terrestrial rivals. Yet, the chaotic overpromises and questionable near-term quality of wireless Web presentations suggest that wired providers still have several years of breathing room.

In particular, an inarticulate panel session about wireless advertising was a reminder that a lack of a business model, or proof of customer appetite, never stops a Web visionary from spending other people's money in pursuit of his dream.

One challenge of an event like Internet World comes in trying to find and sort out all the me-too tools that are now part of any Internet deployment. For example, at least a half-dozen companies demonstrated real-time language translation software: that is, software that lets multiple participants chat online in English, French, Spanish, German or other languages, converting the words as individuals type. Aside from one significant flaw-the fact that most of these systems don't work very well-what's the incentive for a Web-site operator to add this kind of feature right now?

Plenty of other interface products were on display. Among the [slightly] familiar faces was DDD Inc., a developer of three-dimensional tools that surfaced in the General Instrument Corp. booth at last year's Western Show. Now DDD is trying to peddle its OpticBoom 3D plug-in to advertisers and Web producers as an audience-grabbing tool. Broadband capacity is helpful, but not essential.

Other companies are doing what they can to hold on until broadband capacity is widely available. For example, e-Media showed its pay-per-view advertising prototypes and hinted at future sports-event deployment, if and when enough potential customers can see more than a thumbnail-sized digital image.

The range of offerings at shows like Internet World-although confusing in scale-offers some pointers on where vendors see the Internet heading. High-speed and broadband delivery are part of that vision.

But since Internet World is no longer specifically a "plumbing show" (focusing on pipes, routers and connectors), there was surprisingly little emphasis on how this vision will be met. At panel sessions, executives from Microsoft Corp., Excite@Home Corp. and digital subscriber line companies shared selective ideas about their expectations and plans.

But, just like the hordes of bag-stuffers (i.e., the civilians who could easily wander these aisles, looking more for tchotchkes than ideas about broadband deployment), the trade show cast more of a spotlight on the industry's superficiality than its specific direction.

Meanwhile, back to Ugly George, the camera-toting videographer with an ersatz satellite dish atop his backpack. Nearly 20 years ago, he won notoriety for asking New York women to bare their breasts for his public-access show in Manhattan.

Now, George gloats about his role in presaging the Internet, which he delightedly points out is rampant with pornography sites far dirtier than anything he ever showed and consists heavily of homemade videos.

On this day, he is particularly gleeful. A few days earlier, a front-page story in
The New York Times

had pointed out that cable and satellite companies were reaping riches from their "adult" video channels, adding more wherever they can.

Ugly George spins this as a tale of media hypocrisy, citing big media's efforts to keep him off their channels while raking in dough from programs even more explicit than those he tried to foist on cable subscribers.

What perception, in an exposition hall filled with overachievers hoping to foist their own components into the cloudier-than-ever Internet sky.


I-Way Patrol columnist Gary Arlen studiously attended the keynote speeches of ex-Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin and AOL Interactive Services President Barry Schuler, both filled with hopes and dismal
realities.

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