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|Some people seem to think that the issue of freedom in the net is only marginally
relevant for doing business; they agree that we should be concerned about it as citizens,
but they seem to assume that it isn't so important for marketing. Trading goods and
services, they believe, is not the same as exchanging ideas and opinions.
I think they are wrong, for several reasons.
Some business interests understand these facts. We hear calls for net freedom in business conventions. But I don't think this need is as widely understood as it should be.
Is censorship, or in any other way repression, a real danger? The issue is debated quite intensely, and we often hear reassuring statements from authorities; but the problem remains. In June, 1996 I wrote a little paper called Cassandra. Eighteen months later, several of the threats have become even more serious. We should not trust people who claim that they want to "protect" the net. Timeo Danaos, et dona ferentes.
I don't believe that everything can always be left only to "market forces". A few simple rules can help to keep the market competitive and to encourage expansion in the most desirable directions. But we seem to be getting too many useless or harmful rules, and not enough of the few we would really need.
Many good intentions were expressed by the European Union in the Bonn Declaration. But is that what the EU, and local governments, are really doing?
We heard more such "intentions" during the convention in Naples on October 31, announcing EuroISPA, the European association of ISPs. European Union representatives reiterated that "unnecessary regulation should be avoided" and there should be "no regulation for regulation's sake". But at tat same convention (though net freedom was not its main theme) some serious concerns were expressed about existing and pending legislation that may seriously interfere with the free expression of ideas; and also doubts about the plans for "ratings", which may open the way for unilateral control on content.
In Italy, there are plans for an Authority on communication. In principle, that could be a good idea. But there are two dangers. It may concentrate predominantly on the "big business" issues, such as telephone systems and television, and not take the internet seriously. Or, even worse, it could try to "regulate" the net without really understanding it. It's quite surprising how many people in power (and in the media) can't get out of a "broadcast" mentality; quite often they fail to understand the difference between the net and digital television.
Which "rules" would we really need?
First of all, some action (necessarily on an international scale, and starting from the United States) to break monopolies - or at least reduce their control on software (and net) development.
It would also be desirable to have a reduction of cost: of connections (which are too expensive in Europe and in many other parts of the world) as well as software and hardware. Telephone charges for users, and prices paid by ISPs for bulk connections, should be "tending to zero"; but they are not decreasing as fast as they should. There is also a need to encourage the use of simpler machines, and less cumbersome software, than the current market trend is encouraging.
There is a strong need for education. Users or "consumers" should be able to understand their real needs - and to buy what servers their purpose rather than the most fashionable (and expensive) gadget. Technologies exist that could make life enormously simpler (and using computers much less expensive) for all of us; but they need to be better understood and more easily available.
Last, but not least, we need a treatment for a few diseases, such as spamming and violations of privacy. It's unlikely that these problems can be solved by law or regulation. Once again, the issue is culture and education: helping people do be aware of the problem, protect themselves and react as strongly as may be necessary. Left uncontrolled, these diseases could hamper quite seriously a healthy growth of the net.
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|On October 21 the Bocconi University in Milan announced the creation of an
"observatory" to study the development of business on the internet. On that
occasion they presented the results of a survey of
"medium and large" companies. This research is well documented and reliable,
with a statistically validated sample of 268 respondents on a "universe" of 2000
The fist impression is fairly positive: 75 percent of the companies surveyed have internet connection and 44 a website, with a considerable increase since previous surveys. But only 4 percent have some form of "online commerce".
Online presence of "medium and large" Italian companies
There is a paradox here; a small percentage of companies selling goods or services on their websites may be a healthy symptom. It's better to think twice before wandering into online "commerce" without understanding its potential and implications. But deeper analysis shows that most companies are not experimenting with any other online marketing tools. Less than 7 percent of companies that have an intranet (1% of total) have opened their networks to "business partners"; less than 19 percent (3% of total) to clients and suppliers. Overall, less than 8 percent of the companies surveyed are experimenting with some form of online marketing. Only 10 percent of companies with an extranet (0.7% of total) manage data to establish a database.
Only 17 percent of companies with a website (8% of total) provide customer assistance and less than 9 percent (4% of total) are trying to establish some form of dialogue, such as a forum or a chat. Only half of the companies with a website carry out even the most elementary checks, such as counting visitors.
Prof. Andreina Mandelli, commenting these results, noted that marketing and communication functions are still scarcely relevant in the management of the Internet. She pointed to the need for a quality jump in the ability to offer value to net users if we wish to increase the potential. Otherwise the virtuous circle of Internet development (content attracts users and they attract other users and other services) can turn into a vicious circle, condemning out country to an unforgivable delay in the development of an innovation that promises to change not only the way of doing business, but also society.
Once again... in spite of the fanfare, Italy (as most of Europe) lags behind; and for real progress we need to move away from the dominant perception of the net as entertainment or gadgetry, to concentrate on the development of much more serious values of content and service - and, of course, interactivity.
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|We have already discussed a new notion of price
and value, with technology driving costs down while value increases. But there are other
interesting angles to the subject. Long has been running the cry, "information wants
to be free". Quite often, information includes software.
Keith Porterfeld, in his interesting report to the First O'Reilly Perl Conference, points out that without freeware most of the things we are doing in the net would be impossible. Of course the internet and the TCP/IP protocol are public and free. But so are many other tools. Half of the Internet would disappear without freeware. For instance:
Porterfeld points out that the preference for freeware over commercial software is driven by two very simple desires: higher quality and more responsive support. Much freeware is fundamentally better software than its commercial competition.
How could this be true? Essentially, it boils down to this: commercial software developers simply cannot afford the resources that a well-coordinated freeware project brings to bear on the task at hand. Literally hundreds of competent and highly motivated (they're obviously not in it for the money) programmers may participate, contributing architecture and design insights, core program code, bug fixes, and documentation. The freeware philosophy of "release early, release often" to a massive pool of users (instead of the relatively small base of beta testers used in a typical commercial project) enables the finding and subsequent squashing of far more bugs during the development cycle. For a fascinating analysis of this style of software development and why it works, I refer the reader to Eric S. Raymond's article The Cathedral and the Bazaar.
Most freeware is supported via mailing lists, Usenet newsgroups, or a combination of the two. It's typical to receive correct answers to complex technical questions in less than an hour, often from the very programmer who wrote the code. But the myth that freeware is not well supported still persists, and is often cited as the primary reason for the corporate prejudice against free software.
The rift between freeware and commercial software seems to be mostly cultural. In his opening remarks at the Conference, O'Reilly & Associates President and founder Tim O'Reilly drew some parallels based in cultural anthropology: The commercial software development paradigm is like an exchange culture, where an individual's value within society is based on how much they receive. Freeware is more like a gift culture (the potlatch of the Northwest being a prime example), where a person's value is measured by how much they give away.
Unfortunately, it is extremely difficult for those inculcated in the mores of either of these two cultural categories to understand, let alone appreciate, the value system of the other. In the case of software development, especially unfortunate because both the commercial and freeware communities have a lot to learn from each other.
Almost always when freeware is pulled within a commercial entity, barriers are built between the commercial entity and the freeware community that cause development to wither. Not only do we recognize this as a mistake from the commercial point of view, it runs completely counter to our historical roots and belief system... We believe we can create a model for how the business side can live with the freeware side, to the benefit of both.
I believe that Porterfeld and O'Reilly are making a very important point, that (if well understood) could lead to a quality leap in the industry; and to considerable benefits for all "netizens".
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|As I've been repeating ad nauseam, there are too many attempts to count
internet users; and none are accurate or reliable. This one proves the point once again;
but it's interesting because it's recent (November 1997) and it has been put together by a
reliable and well-informed Irish organization, NUA.
This analysis is based on a variety of sources. It considers all "users" (NUA estimates that there are approximately three people using the net for each contract with a provider) of all ages, including teenagers and children.
They believe that here are 86 million internet users worldwide. That's likely to be an overestimate... NUA reports that the figure is 57 million according to Midas and 51 according to Intelliquest.
Here are their data by geographic area (millions of users):
And this is the NUA estimate for 48 countries (for some there are two or three different figures, depending on sources).
There are considerable differences between sources; and some of the estimates are hard to explain. It's quite unbelievable that there are a million (or even 700 thousand) internet users in Brazil (that would be three times the density of comparable countries, such as Argentina). Also numbers for Canada and Japan appear overestimated. The density in Spain and Portugal seems too high, compared with other European countries. I didn't even consider in this chart a statement by Nasscom that there are over a million internet users in India, which is totally absurd under present circumstances (but might become true a few years from now). According to some sources there are 5 million users in Asia; others say 10 or 12. Avantel estimates one million users in Latin America, Star Media five.
If we consider that all this is reported by one of the most reliable sources, we find once again that "guesstimates" of internet numbers are quite unreliable (and not comparable); they can be a matter of interest and curiosity, but the fact remains that we simply don't know how many people are on the net.
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It's reported only occasionally in the media, end even on the net; but the market for second-hand computers is growing. In many "flee markets" we can find parts of discarded computers, in good working condition, that we can use to assemble perfectly efficient machines at a fraction of the market price. People who know how to choose according to real need, not fashion, are still a small minority; but the trend is quietly growing.
I don't believe in prophecies; but this one is much more reliable than most. NetSmart-Research says that by year 2005 there will be more women than men on the internet. (In any case, all sources confirm that the percentage of female netizens is growing constantly.) The NetSmart study finds that women use the net as a tool to help them find quicker ways to do things "while men use the internet increasingly as a toy". 57 percent of those surveyed said they are watching less TV, 21 percent reading fewer newspapers and 19 percent buying fewer magazines. Once more, this survey shows that relationships and interactivity are crucial to attracting people online.
Change in India
For a long time the Indian government has been promising to open the way for wider use of the internet. Now it has announced its policy for the privatization of service providers. "There will be no limit to the amount of ISPs that want so set up" and "market forces will be allowed to determine the access fee which the private ISPs will charge to subscribers". The policy endorses the use of the Indian Railways, Powergrid Corp. of India Ltd., State Electricity Board and the Department of Communication by the ISPs. Some comments suggest that as a result the internet market in India will grow from 40.000 users to two million in two years. That's hard to believe; but the Indian government's decision can, indeed, open the way for major changes.
A narrow opening in Saudi Arabia (with censorship)
On November 5 the Saudi Gazette announced that Saudi Arabia is to introduce "limited access" to the internet. The government has commissioned King Abdul-Aziz City for Science and Technology, a state-owned research company, to study ways for censoring of materials "which would affect the religious and moral ethics of the country". The stated concern is the availability of "pornography" and "illicit material", but there is a bigger issue at stake: the Saudi press is heavily censored and officials are worried that the internet may disturb the status quo.
Internet in Vietnam only for the rich
The Vietnam government has decided to provide the country with internet access, that so it had impeded because it feared the possible effect of freedom of information. But even with this new opening the costs of going online will be beyond the reach of most of the country's population.
Advertisers don't understand the net
Even in Britain, one of the most advanced countries in the internet, the value of the net as a communication tool is not understood by most companies. This was the general agreement at a recent conference in London. While the US spent 358 million dollars on web advertising Europe spent only 6 million. According to Simon Darling, Marketing & Electronic Commerce Manager for Unilever, this was not due to lack of willing investors, but to a fundamental lack of understanding of the medium by brand managers and advertising agencies who still used traditional branding methods to attract the online consumer.
E-mail brings families closer
The Washington Post reported on November 3 that a growing number of parents with children away at school are surprised at how often their children use e-mail to stay in touch. Parents also find that that children are opening up to them via e-mail more readily than over the telephone or even face to face. Convenience is cited as a reason for using e-mail, as well as cost savings and 24 hour contact availability without disrupting schedules. Of 9 million students in college, 7 million use e-mail regularly.
A new culture for a new generation?
Growing up Digital, a book by Don Tapscott, suggests that the emerging digital generation, the first to grow up with information technology as part of their lives, will have a significant impact on society in coming years. Tapscott says that this new generation is "emotionally and intellectually open, innovative and one of free expression and strong views" and believes that, as they enter the workforce, corporations and employers will be forced to become more open, less hierarchical and more collaborative.
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|Research carried out by Excite for Third Age indicates that 14 percent of
internet users are over 50. According to the survey, they originally went online to
"try something new" but now surf the web just as enthusiastically as their
grandchildren; they use e-mail more often than their kids. 83 percent log on daily.
86 percent went to college, 50 percent graduated. 65% earn $ 40,000 a year or more, 31 percent $ 70.000 or more. 69 percent are men, 31 percent are women. Only 25 percent consider themselves retired. They are at the lower end of "third age": 49 percent of the "wired agers" found by this survey are under 54.
The presence of old people in the net is still quite limited; but the number is growing, not just because "netizens" get older. There is also an influx of old people trying the net for the first time. This is a trend that should be encouraged; and ways should be found to open net access also to less affluent, less educated people; specially those that risk isolation. But this needs a serious educational effort, to overcome the embarrassment of people who are not familiar with information technology.