What if they built a mall and no one cared?


I first met author Holly Whyte about 16 years ago, back when my colleague at the Conservation Foundation was his editor and my wife was working for the non-profit organization that was publishing "The Social Life of Urban Spaces." This book is a handy little gem about why certain urban parks and public areas work and why they don't. Not content to just theorize, Whyte took a camera crew to the streets of New York and examined the time-lapse pictures of people strolling, eating and avoiding particular plazas, such as the one around the Seagram building and Paley park. The book is still in print, and you can buy it from Amazon.com.

What does this have to do with the web, you might ask? Lots. The recent announcement by IBM that they are closing up worldavenue.com brought back memories of Whyte's antics.

When I first heard about worldavenue.com earlier this week, I took a small poll of web-saavy people I was meeting with that day. Unscientific, but unanimous: no one had ever visited the site, let alone knew of its existence. IBM built an eMall and no one came.

Now, Whyte found out why some urban spaces attracted crowds and why some didn't: my favorite example was ledges that had metal ribbing placed strategically so that no one could sit down on them, telling people to steer clear. It is an apt image for IBM's worldavenue.

On the web, we have log files instead of time lapse photos: while more scientific, we need to understand why some sites work and others fail. Here are some of my thoughts.

First off, the whole notion of eMalls is somewhat off-key. Physical malls are destinations. We go there to do more than just shopping: we see a movie, eat lunch, entertain the kids, distract ourselves.

eMalls though aren't really destinations - when everything on the web is a click away, it is more a random collection of stores gathered together by the mall provider. Like in the physical world, IBM tried to find "anchors" - big names such as Omaha Steaks - to drive traffic to the mall. They tried to build worldavenue.com as a destination. That didn't work, as my poll indicated. All of us have hard enough time remembering URLs and certainly worldavenue doesn't exactly slip off the tongue. Indeed, there is even a site (malls.com, of course) that keeps track of other eMalls. That is what makes the web such a wonderful place.

But what IBM (and also MCI, who tried and failed with its own eMall) should have been doing is building turnkey commerce sites for small businesses. Take the music store that is downstairs from my humble world headquarters here in Port Washington. They have their own web site (www.themusichouse.com. Do they have any back-end integrated systems with their credit-card processor? Nope. Could they benefit from an eMall? Yes, given the right arrangement. Would they even think of calling IBM for help? Doubtful.

There are a few eMall vendors that are figuring this out, and providing a full range of services, including storefront design, hosting, payment services and accounting systems. But they have to understand the small business mentality, which is not to pay too much and spend too much time away from the cash register. And make it turnkey with as little hassle as possible. Does that sound like IBM?

Back to Holly Whyte. One of his issues was examining the pedestrian-friendly streets that many downtowns were building by blocking off traffic, and comparing these miserable situations to the ones in Europe and elsewhere that were very successful. The downtown ped-mall didn't work because people want to park in front of the store they shop, and because again, it isn't enough of an attraction to be a destination.

Now look at the folks at Virtual Emporium, who are trying to do the same thing over the web. They now have two physical stores (one on the tony upper west side of NYC, and one in Santa Monica) that contain a bunch of internet-connected computers, and several deals with name-brand merchants.

But the thought of stopping by their physical storefront to surf the web to buy something just doesn't connect with me. Why bother? Can I get a latte while I browse their machines? Or a free modem? Make it worthwhile for stopping by.

Site-keeping and self promotions dep't

As always, been busy doing a fair amount of writing. Here are the latest articles that have been published over the past week or so:

My cover story for Web Review is out today and entitled, Getting Served: Which server is best for you, Netscape or Microsoft? I examine the recently shipping Suite Spot v3 and compare it to the promised upgrade of IIS v4.

My July "Browser" column for Windows Sources is called Getting Organized. It is a look at using your web browser to access Lotus Organizer calendars, along with some comments on using the web interface with other calendar products.

My latest review for Infoworld appeared this week called, Find out who came to call and where with IIS Assistant add-on, a tool that works with Microsoft's IIS server to analyze your visitors and provide real-time feedback.

One other item of note. As many of you know, in addition to email subscriptions, I already make use of Intermind and Lanacom's push technologies to deliver these essays. I've created my own PointCast Channel as another option, and you can find the listing in the PointCast Connections directory here. You'll need to first download the v2 client from PointCast first.

David Strom
+1 (516) 944-3407
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entire contents copyright 1997 by David Strom, Inc.