...or the end of the beginning?
Important thresholds have been crossed recently that show that the bright future for commercial Internet isn’t just hype. However, there are still hurdles to cross.
The hypertext-based World Wide Web (WWW), and its graphically-orientated browsers like Mosaic and Cello are the engine of much recent Internet growth. On-line magazines, and services for purchasing products or information are multiplying. Browser development must be continued to provide the widest possible appeal.
This was never possible in any reasonable way so long as Mosaic was a ‘freeware’ application. Can you really base a commercial revolution on alpha software that is supported largely by an enthusiastic user community? The answer is no. While the WWW was getting up to speed, the NCSA and the University of Illinois was up to the task of tweaking the Mosaic engine. But the popularity of their browser has outstripped their capacity to support it. It costs money to maintain and improve software. Commerce, a dirty word to some T-shirt and jeans Internet surfers, is the only alternative.
It is encouraging that the creators of the most popular WWW browser have gone legit and formed Spyglass Inc. to commercialise Mosaic. What must be one of the last ‘free’ alpha editions (2 alpha 5) has just been released -- with new features and numerous bug fixes; but it nonetheless was still capable of eliciting howls of anguish from the user community.
Can the Microsofts, Lotuses and Novells of this world be far behind? I can think of a double dozen features that my ideal Web browser would incorporate (besides a decrease in Windows GPFs!) not yet available. Competition is the answer to improving the breed.
A business environment requires a measure of stability, too. The Web itself is about to get organised properly. A consortium to supervise the evolution of WWW standards has been mooted and will function along the lines of the X consortium (that ovresees the open standard of the X Window system). But this is still a touch too airey-fairy for some advocates of the commercial Internet.
Still roadblocks exist. I can’t get to ftp.microsoft.com or Microsoft’s WWW page with my connection because I need to cross a portion of the non-commercial Internet to reach those very commercial Microsoft resources. Whether my ‘acceptable use’ petition is eventually approved by NSFNet or not, the inability of all commercial users to reach all corners of the Internet is intolerable. It may take some time for the academic world (which is the constituency of NSFnet) to realise the advantages of true global connectivity. The sooner the better.
Selling the Times at 20p a copy is a blunt expression of disdain for short term economics that has certainly rattled the Telegraph, who had themselves only just dropped their price to 30p to match the Times’ previous manoeuvres; and the less robust Independent and Guardian must be wondering what they can do if their hitherto loyal readers are swayed by this giveaway.
So why has Murdoch decided to move in for the kill and try to establish the Times as the de-facto serious broadsheet at this time? Maybe the answer lies in taking a broader overview of his media empire and it may suddenly dawn that national newspapers are about to enjoy a resurgence in influence that few seem to have realized was the inevitable consequence of the progressive and inevitable dilution of commercial TV -- once the all-powerful advertising and influence medium -- but now facing a serious threat from satellite TV (which Murdoch effectively owns as far as the UK is concerned).
With so much choice in terms of viewing, getting consistently large audiences together is already proving to be difficult. Imagine what TV on demand and the proposed 500 channel TV systems will do for dilution of the individual commercial station viewing figures.
The name of Murdoch’s game appears to be control of all the focal events that will command the increasingly rare concentrated audiences. He seems willing to open his chequebook in order to monopolize as many sporting events as are willing to take the Sky TV shilling.
Beyond broadcast media looms the age of individual "media", where the "information superhighway" promises to deliver tailored information and entertainment solutions that will enable its users to avoid "mass media" much of the time, and advertising along with it.
So what? ...ask many observers. This is only likely to be a small proportion of the total available audience for a long time yet. But by its own self-extraction process, it happens to be the cream of the audience in terms of advertiser demographic desires.
So we come back to the Times price war. Whatever goes on in electronic media, there seems to be a generally held view that hell will freeze over before the habit of the daily newspaper is likely to be replaced. As long as people commute (which is another question for another time) daily newspapers will be the medium of first choice for portability and that sense of community that we all need at some pint in our lives.
Thus the daily newspaper that commands the highly desirable ABC1 technocrat audience that has begun to exercise its choice to avoid traditional media will assume far more importance than perhaps anyone suspected just a few years ago.
Those who paid hugely to retain ITV franchises may just about scrape through this time; but the next time the licenses are up for renewal, it will be interesting to see just how much they are perceived to be worth in the light of media revolutions of recent years.
This important medium of the national daily press is more than just an advertising bonanza: it is the perfect starting place from which to influence the directions of the readers into the "new media" opportunities. The Rupert Murdoch empire includes every trick in that book: in addition to Sky TV, he owns the Delphi Internet services operation, and thus has an early opportunity to participate in the formulation of the commercial exploitation of this medium too.
However you feel about so much power being vested in one organisation -- arguably, one individual -- ownership of these "daily directories" that influence and point to the electronic media is a vital part of Murdoch’s strategy, and he is investing heavily to own them outright.
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