When the going gets tough, the tough go shopping

Web Informant #44: October 18, 1996

It seems as if everyone is getting into the Internet-shopping craze. Not from the consumer end -- that would be too much wish-fulfillment -- but from the products and services end. Microsoft, Federal Express (yes, Fedex!) and PSInet have all within the last week announced their entry into this arena.

Right now shopping via the 'net is alot like not being able to find a parking spot at the local mall, then once you get inside there aren't any signage on the stores. And even if you find the right shop they have just run out of stock of the merchandise. In other words, it isn't a cakewalk. Sure there are some notable exceptions, but the web storefronts of 1996 are like some early 1960's-era malls: no climate control and few amenities.

Microsoft's Merchant server, which is based on their Internet Information Server (that comes free with NT Server) and other technologies, will be the one to watch. It is based on NT, of course, and faces some real uphill battles to get Internet service providers to 1) embrace NT and 2) feel comfortable about out-selling catalog and web storefronts based on this technology, and 3) shell out close to $20,000 for the product (and that is just software). Still, the demo that I saw had lots of promise: Microsoft was putting in the box a bunch of different templates so you have something to get going relatively quickly.

PSInet's product, called eCommerce, is a storefront hosting service on their network for the low price of $295 a month, using the CyberCash payment system. That isn't the lowest priced storefront we've seen (viaWeb is about half that, for example), but being PSI makes this a notable stake in the ground and probably will cut into higher-priced alternatives.

And then there is FedEx's BusinessLink, which will also have pointers to various storefronts on their web site (but not do the actual hosting -- that is up to the individual merchants). The twist is that FedEx will supply the trucks and planes and computers to fulfill and ship the stuff ordered.

In the meantime, I'll be at the mall. Now that Roosevelt Field is getting Nordstroms, why venture elsewhere?

Site-keeping and self-promotions dep't

Some new columns appearing this week include:

Lessons learned from web publishing, redux

I started writing these series of essays about eight web years (or 13 months) ago. It was born partly out of my own frustration with a lack of good information web-related publishing and marketing, and partly out of my own experimentation.

I've learned quite a lot in the meantime, as have we all. First, you move around in cyberspace quite a bit: keeping track of your email address for these missives is almost a part-time job. People change jobs in our industry, certainly, but they change email identities more often (or your IS staffs change yours for you).

Second, sending an HTML file as an email message is a real challenge. Virtually none of the NT-based mailing programs know how to do this correctly (where the HTML MIME content type is specified in the mail header), which means I have ended up using a Unix-based sendmail/perl script to deliver these essays to you. That takes some work to maintain.

Third, I am constantly amazed at how quick to respond many of you are: oftentimes I get return mail (real messages, not bounces or errors) within MINUTES of sending out my essay. Thoughtful replies, too. Having been in the print publishing field for ten years, it is amazing to see this kind of response.

Finally, I have learned that it isn't the size of my mailing list of direct recipients that is important: it is how these essays get passed around that counts. Think about it: is it better that your CEO gets one from me directly or five copies from five different people?

After much thought, I am going to make some changes here at Web Informant HQ. Don't panic: you'll still get your essay more or less weekly. But you will be getting it differently. You notice that this isn't in HTML any more. That is not a mistake.

These changes require a big step from each and every one of you -- you'll need to download some software to read my essays. Now, this initially may be a pain in the hard disk, but bear with me: it isn't much software (the download is about a megabyte's worth, and it will take up about 15 megabytes of disk space). Right now the software is only for Windows 95 and NT, but coming soon will be product for Windows 3.1 and Mac. You'll also need a connection to the net and a forms-based Netscape or Microsoft browser.

The software is called Intermind Communicator, and is brand new. It is a rather simple piece of technology that works in conjunction with your browser.

Communicator is easier to explain what it isn't than what it is: it isn't an offline browser, it isn't agent-based, it isn't a broadcast or web-cast device.

You can read more about it in the following URLs:

After you download Communicator, you then go to my site -- this is the location on my web site for a small file called a hyperconnector. This hyperconnector has a list of URLs that I've put together that will point you to the places on my site that I have updated over the past week or want to call to your attention. You can go to these locations or delete them, as you wish.

Once you install my hyperconnector, you are done. Every time I make changes to my hyperconnector, you'll be notified and asked if you want to get the latest version. Once you do (the hyperconnector itself is very small, just a few kilobytes), you'll see the new stuff I want you to look at on my site. That's it. It is the ultimate in web-based custom publishing, and a perfect fit for what I have been trying to do with this mish-mash of technologies to produce these essays.

What Communicator does for me is get me out of the email business. I realize that I am taking something of a chance with this technology: first off, because it is new and still a bit risky. Second, because I will lose a part of my audience that is more email-driven than web-driven, including that important pass-along readership. Third, because any change introduces new problems that no one can foresee, especially in this business.

But after using the Communicator product for some time I think it is the right thing for me to do. So bear with me as we try this experiment. For the next few weeks, you'll get duplicate email and hyperconnector versions. They will be the same, apart from the fact that the email will be plain text while the hyperconnector will contain the URLs. After this shakedown period, I'll stop sending the entire essay via email, because hopefully all of you will have had a chance to download the software and try it out.

You'll (hopefully not but might) run into snags implementing the Communicator on your system. I have asked the folks at Intermind to set aside some of their time to help you get things installed.

If you have been passing along my essays, now is the time for you to try Intermind's product. And you can then help others on your own personal redistribution list get hyperconnected. After all, you'd like to continue to get kudos for being on the cutting edge -- here is a very demonstratable way to do it.

I want to tell you about other changes as well. When I began my web site and essays, I also sold sponsorships as a means of deferring my costs of producing both efforts. I am grateful to the original sponsors -- Novell, Network Associates, Compaq and Attachmate, but I realized that I don't want to continue with this model.

However, I will have links on my hyperconnector for promotional purposes. These will offer much more exposure than a 'sponsors' page in a deep dark corner of my web site that no one really ever visited anyway.

I don't want to get into all the details about how this will work -- you can go to my web site and look at the new sponsors page. But I think this will be very targeted marketing at a pretty high-level audience of industry insiders, executives, and leading-edge users -- just the sort of demographics that make for early-adopters of new technologies.

Do let me know what you think about all of this via email of course. And good luck with the Intermind Communicator.

David Strom
+1 (516) 944-3407