Monday, December 10, 2001

Week of 12/10/2001

Web Woes 2001
- by David Matthews 2

"The worst crime against working people is a company which fails to operate at a profit." - Samuel Gompers

You know, one of the things I’ve heard from the older generations is how EASY things are for me. I’m sure my fellow Generation-X’ers heard it as well. Certainly the Gen-Y kids (or NeXters as they are sometimes called) are hearing it as well. How easy it is for us to live today compared to yesterday!

It’s not a new complaint. Every older generation boasts of the hardships they had to endure in their younger days. I think the only generation that NEVER had that problem was the first one. I think it would’ve been hard for Adam to tell his kids how HARD he and Eve suffered in the Garden of Eden. "When we were you’re age, we didn’t have clothes! We had to walk around NAKED! Naked, you hear me? Times were TOUGH!"

Well, being one of those at the forefront of the Gen-X crowd, I can say that our older peers were partially right. It HAS been easier for us than in previous generations in terms of creature comforts. I mean, once upon a time, you would NOT have found a grocery store open 24-hours a day! You wouldn’t have 24-hour cable news, and 24-hour weather reports, and 24-hour music videos, and 24-hour ANYTHING on TV. Cellular phones and Wall-Mart and as many ways to make coffee as there are for Baskin Robbin’s ice cream. All of these things that just were not around one generation ago!

Certainly the Internet and computers have played a HUGE role in providing many of our new creature comforts. Once upon a time, if the local store didn’t have what you needed, you had to get your stuff from a mail-order catalogue. Now, instead of going to a catalogue store, or playing those long waiting games with the postal service, we can go online and order just about ANYTHING we want, and have it delivered in a matter of DAYS instead of weeks. Instead of having to go to a library or a bookstore to get the news from someplace outside of your area, you can now go online and visit that publication’s website. Pen pals take on a whole new meaning online, where you can chat endlessly and instantaneously with people from all around the world.

But there is a downside to all of these creature comforts… and that is it makes us soft and impatient. We are now USED to having things instantly provided for. We want our double-filtered, extra-cream, no sugar, mocha blend coffee now, not in ten minutes. We want our favorite movies now. We don’t want to drive to the theatre and have be there on THEIR schedules, then have to put up with noisy people and uncomfortable seats and who-knows-what on the floor under our shoes. We expect things to be open and available at OUR schedules, not the other way around.

And of all of the creature comforts, instant information HAS to be the number one creature comfort today. We crave instant messages and cell phones and pagers and getting e-mail from a PDA. Laptop computers are almost as big and powerful as any desktop, and people keep on talking about those soon-to-be released tablet computers that look like something out of Star Trek.

So imagine, then, our reaction when we are cut off from some of those creature comforts.

It’s not a pretty sight.

It’s like taking away a baby’s pacifier. We get cranky. We get irritable. We get annoyed. We throw temper tantrums. And we expect someone to fix things.

Remember a few years ago when America Online suffered from growing pains? AOL made the mistake of offering unlimited access before they had the infrastructure to handle all those millions of users staying online. It was a colossal blunder, one that cost them in terms of subscribers and in terms of bad public relations. People who just did not want to deal with busy signals switched to Internet Service Providers who were eager to take their money and had access to spare!

But even if they did not switch, oh did the subscribers bitch and cry! They wailed and moaned for satisfaction like a bunch of babies who needed their ba-ba. Oh woe are we, woe are we, we cannot get our daily fix!

Like I said, it’s not a pretty sight.

And some of those dissatisfied subscribers even went so far as to hire lawyers and file lawsuits against AOL! They actually tried to claim false advertising or some kind of unwritten expectation of instant access. In either case, the lawsuits didn’t go very far. But it did demonstrate just how upset the subscribers were when they couldn’t get their fix for information.

Well recently one ISP has taken Internet woes to a new level. Excite@Home was one of the major suppliers of broadband Internet content. If you had access to the Internet via a cable provider like AT&T, Comcast, or Cox Communications, odds are it was provided through Excite.

You would think that a company that had a lock on so many productive cable providers (which in and of themselves are government-endorsed monopolies) would be financially secure. It turns out, though, that Excite wasn’t as secure as expected. They were so badly off that they turned to one of their own clients – AT&T – to buy them out. Realizing that Excite wouldn’t be able to survive the winter, the Ma Bell company said no, and then set up its own broadband connections. The other cable providers soon had to follow suit when Excite arbitrarily cut off all connections two weeks ago.

The effect was predictable… millions of cable subscribers were cut off from the Internet. No browsing, no IM’ing, no chatting, no e-mailing, no downloading, and no streaming. Blank screens and "Unable to connect" messages all around!

And the info junkies were PISSED! Some of them didn’t even realize how the demise of Excite would affect them. After all, they got their service through Cox or Comcast or XYZ Cable. That’s who they paid their subscriptions to. And now those companies were unable to provide the service that they paid for.

But let’s get brutally honest here… the demise of Excite was somewhat predictable, not to mention inevitable. The company was, after all, a middleman. They provided the link between the cable companies and the Internet, but that’s all they provided. Outside of the routers and converters, Excite@Home basically milked off the cable lines of its own clients. Their connection to the Internet wasn’t unique to them, it was just a time-saver for cable providers who were otherwise clueless how to make the connection. It was only a matter of time before a company like AT&T would say "Screw them! We’ve got the technology right here, we don’t need them to do this!" After all, why would the original telephone company, who has its own ISP, even WANT to deal with middlemen, except out of sheer corporate laziness?

And I have a feeling Excite knew that as well, which was why the execs made the decision to arbitrarily shut off service now instead of when they would officially shut down in February of 2002. It was an object lesson to the cable subscribers to show just how much they need their info fix, and to cable providers to show just how lazy they really were.

What was also inevitable was the screed coming from those who considered the demise of Excite, and the cutting off of Net access for millions, as the perfect excuse to have the government do what Netizens have rallied against for five years: regulate the Internet.

One talking head from the Ziff-Davis Network considered Excite’s shutdown to be the perfect reason why government should be running things online. After all, broadband access IS the newest entitlement, right? Right up there with food, clothing, shelter, and "Who Wants To Be A Millionaire".

Well I’ve got a question for Mister David Coursey and his "We can’t trust private business" socialistic big-government mindset: What makes you think the GOVERNMENT can do a better job? Before you answer that, why don’t you take a look at the 2001 Federal Tax Code to see why Congress is the direct opposite of progress.

Would government regulation have stopped Excite from going under? Certainly not! If anything, the government would have forced ALL the cable companies to use Excite’s services, creating a danger for even more subscribers when Excite eventually falls.

And as for his drivel about the so-called "failure" of deregulation, I only have two words: WHAT deregulation?

California’s public utilities were NEVER deregulated! Neither were the airlines, or the phone services. Believe me, if these venues WERE really and truly deregulated, there would have been government agencies shut down and government employees laid off and scores of regulatory book that would have gone into incinerators. Instead, these venues were RE-regulated. Rules were changed here and there. Regulatory agencies were told to stop focusing at one area and instead look someplace else. But were they ever really deregulated? Please! Stop deluding yourself!

While the government may have laid down the foundation to the Internet, everything that makes it what it is today came AFTER the government got out of the Internet business in 1988. The federal government did NOT invent hypertext protocols. A private group did. The federal government did NOT invent streaming media. A private company did. The federal government did NOT invent the browsers and chat programs you use. Private companies did. What makes you think the government could do what private companies have been inspired to do?

Look, the important thing to bear in mind is that access to the Internet is NOT an entitlement program. Yes, a provider going down will cause some inconvenience. It sucks not having instant information. It sucks not having access to your e-mail all the time. But it isn’t permanent, and you’re more than free to find some other provider that CAN give you what you want. That’s something the government CANNOT provide!

Progress is not perfect. The telephone system wasn’t instantaneous when it first got started. The first automobiles were sometimes more trouble than they were worth. The Wright Brothers crashed their first airplanes. Radio and television were far from flawless in their early years. The Internet is no different in that regard. Sure, we are going to have companies stumble and fall. Providers are going to be bought out and go bankrupt, and people are going to be inconvenienced. Suck it up and deal with it, because inconvenience serves as the greatest incentive for change!

Besides, twenty or thirty years down the road, you’re going to be the ones telling your kids and grandkids how TOUGH things were for you at their age.

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