The Great Slowdown


Posted on NewsTrolls 10 August 1999

Perhaps it has to do with these being the dog days of August. Perhaps it has to do with Y2K fever. Or perhaps it's just that the glint is off the edge of the metal. Or all of these things.

And perhaps you haven't noticed - but - the web is slowing down.

I don't mean that it's getting slower and slower to load web pages. In fact, download speeds have remained relatively constant over the last year or so, at least from where I sit.

No, what I mean is that the phenomenal growth we've come to know and love - and expect - has tailed off.

Don't believe me? The signs are all there, for those who will see...

First, as I just mentioned, download times have remained relatively static. Oh sure, you can bump up your speed by switiching to cable or ADSL, but I've been on high speed access for several years now and things aren't moving any more quickly than, say, 1997. Internet 2 remains but a distant dream, the private preserve of academics and researchers. The rest of us are using the same systems we used in 1997.

Second, the number of internet users is no longer growing exponentially. It's still growing, of course, but the rate of growth has declined. Take a look at this Industry Standard metric. In the last year, usage in Canada and the United States climbed to 92 million, up 13 million from last year's 79 million. It's a respectable 14 percent jump - but not exponential growth.

Take a look at any Internet Service Provider. You can see the fear in their eyes. Competition is increasing. Access prices are falling. Even in Edmonton, Canada, ISPs are offering free computers to people willing to sign up for internet access. We've gone way beyond AOL coasters here. These are the tactics of desperation.

Third, the sheen has faded from internet stocks. This summer has been characterized by a slump in the NASAQ exchange. Check out this chart from Yahoo. Technology stocks today are trading at about where they were in January of this year. IPOs are faring no better; the Standard reports that five of last week's nine IPOs are selling below their offer prices.

Fourth, the browsers have stopped changing. When was the last time we say an insanely great browser release? Internet Explorer 5? Hardly - that was just a touch-up of IE4. Netscape has released a beta version of 5, but the production model is still 4.6 and steady. Browser improvements today are marginal. And this is reflected in the spread of usage rates. These figures are from Ham Radio Online, but they are characteristic. People are not upgrading.

These are the numbers, but I suspect that many readers will identify with the qualitative feel of the slowdown. A feel best expressed perhaps by Gabriel Fenteany in her recent post to A List Apart:

Lately the romance has gone out of the Web for me. I still update my stuff frequently, use it for news and info: nothing has really changed in terms of hours spent doin' the Web, but it just isn't the same. I don't know what it is. The umpteenth art site - not particularly thought-provoking or anything, really, just self-indulgent? Another Salon.com article debating whether some portion of the Internet is a catalyst for or just a symptom of the latest existential crisis in America? Another CNN - cable television version - story on the latest hot Internet IPO or on the latest hot Web site? I'm bored...bored to death...oh, so bored... I want something new but don't know what it is... XML? VRML? ADVIL? Is this feeling common? Healthy? Should I see a doctor?

This plea provoked a deluge of mail from readers (unfortunately not yet archived - Earth to Zeldman - how hard can it be to archive a weekly list?). The sizzle has faded. The glamour has gone. What was once an insanely great way to make money has devolved into a plain old-fashioned job.

How did this happen? How could we become so jaded? A number of things, really...

First, we've run out of types of media. We started with text and software. Then we got images. Then we got sound. Then we got clunky video and even clunkier desktop videoconferencing. Then we got multimedia. Then jerky VR. What's left? It's going to be some time (if ever) before we transmit touch and scent over the internet (though Derrick de Kerckhove reports on a number of interesting experiments in Connected Intelligence). Humans don't have any more senses. We're stuck with the media we have now.

Second, we've run out of topics. Want to create a new, fresh web page? If you can think of it, it's probably been done. A fan site? Almost every actor and actress has several. Movies? The Internet Movie Database has every movie listed. It's no wonder people are flocking to news and chat sites - they're the only new thing out there.

One sure sign that we've run out of topics is that we've run out of words. The best domain names are all taken. Even the bad domain names are taken. Oh sure, Togo (.to) and Tuvalu (.tv) are cashing in on the shortage. But on the whole, the entire English language has been bought, acquired, or copyrighted. Not much room for newcomers.

Third, Walt Disney owns all the cool sites. Well - maybe not all of them, but you get my point. The really interesting companies - even SlashDot - have been purchased by media companies. And let's not talk about the new corporate Wired. When that happens, the creativity leaves. Oh sure, they say they won't. But they do.

One of my favorite sites when I'm feeling sentimental is ex-mozilla, a site by and for the 350-500 staff laid off from Netscape after the AOL purchase. Sure, you see the odd former employee 'joining the dark side', but most are working on small start-ups. None of them will ever be another Netscape, but some of them will pay the bills.

Fourth, the hardware hasn't kept up with the software. Hard to believe, but it's true. New net software - in case you haven't been watching - is written almost entirely in Java (try finding XML/XSL browsers and you'll see what I mean). But the unofficial slogan for Java was - and still is - "write once, run slowly".

And it's just not selling. Case in point: after WBS was acquired by The Go Network (owned by Disney), users were offered a java chat engine as an alternative to WBS's traditional scrolling web chat engine. Go there and check it out today. Hundreds and hundreds of users on the web chat. A few dozen on the Java chat. Sure, the Java chat offers all the features of the web based chat. But it just won't work on too many machines.

People have finally acquired 'upgrade fatigue'. It takes a special sort of person to drop $2000-$3000 on a new system every couple of years, plus another thousand or so for software. Most people just won't do it, especially when the new system doesn't do anything the old system won't do. Think about it - what's the biggest news in hardware this year? Yup - brightly coloured notebooks.

Fifth, you can't find anything on the net. Well - that's not strictly true; if you know what you are doing, you can get to where you want to go. But most people don't. They go to Yahoo, type in a vague search term, and spend an hour clicking on 1995 links to non-existent sites. Yes, folks, the search engines are dreadful. They lag. They produce stale links. They produce dated and irrelevant material. And in some cases, they produce links which have been bought and paid for by advertisers.

Sixth, browsing is dead. You know what I mean - aimlessly following link after link, surfing from site to site, exhalting in the wonder of it all, opening your eyes to new ideas and new possibilities. But sites are built like that any more. You have to surf pretty hard to lave the site you're currently visiting. Even portal sites set up content areas designed to keep you inside. And most commercial sites have almost no external links. Nobody wants you to browse.

Today's surfers have become goal-oriented. They know what they want, they know where it is, and there's not much point venturing beyond the known and familiar because it's full of dead-end streets. If they are not careful they will hit one of those pornography sites which launches five browsers in succession. And they will be endlessly closing those Geocities popup ads.

So now what. Where do we go from here?

Well - for now - nowhere.

We need several key things to happen before we move into the next period of strong internet growth.

First, we need bandwidth. Yes, folks, speeds are going to have to start increasing again; until they do, we are stuck with very simple multimedia, clunky video, and non-existent virtual reality. Bandwidth will increase, but without government footing the infrastructure bill, it will increase more slowly than in the past. Expect a couple of years wait on this one.

Second, we need better computers. Not necessarily faster (though that would help), but rather, computers which are less costly, less complicated, and built to run Java applets. Until these next generation computers come out (and there is nothing short-term on the horizon here), the new internet software will not be widely used. This means we all have to wait for intelligent agents and virtual machines.

Third, we have to wait six months for the clocks to tick over. Nobody is going to make a major move until Y2K is history.

Fourth, we have to wait for cheap multimedia. Today's glossy sites cost hundreds of thousands of dollars to build. That is because they use a lot of multimedia, and multimedia is hard. And because multimedia is so expensive, the selection of attractive sites is shrinking. We need cheap multimedia so Johnny's Grade Six retrospective can look and feel as slick as The Matrix.

And fifth, we need a new domain name system. One which does away with the short-sighted .com and ,org domains, and allows any string of words to be a valid address. That's not going to happen anytime soon.

If you buy stocks, or make your living predicting the future, heed this advice. Get out of software and website stocks. The only bright spot - e-commerce - is going to reach its peak shortly. After that, the whole web will be waiting for hardware.

But the coming hardware boom is a whole 'nother essay.


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