The Web is a utility medium
By David Walker (Google profile)
Back in 1998, at the behest of an entrepreneur in the Australian Internet industry, I created the outline of an Internet "production house". I struggled with the brief from the outset, because his vague utterances on the issue centred on the idea of "entertainment". He saw the Internet and thought "movie studio". I saw the Net rather less grandly as a medium providing services and information with as much flair as scarce bandwidth would tolerate. We quickly parted.
The entrepreneur got much richer for a while, at least on paper, even though he never produced any Internet entertainment of note. For a while, echoes of the movie industry bewitched the Internet economy and its already starry-eyed followers. AOL took over the film- and video-rich Time Warner. Telstra executives and their advertisements preached a future of convergent, video-rich multimedia. Stock analysts at organisations like Morgan Stanley heralded an entertainment revolution, a combination of film and TV's rich imagery with the Internet's interactivity. Shareholders, boards, governments, bankers and consultants across the planet bought into the idea.
Then came the dot-com collapse of March and April 2000. In its wake, Internet entertainment firms such as Digital Entertainment Network and Pseudo.com collapsed; the Speilberg-backed Pop.com was still-born.
It's no coincidence that entertainment-based Internet firms led the dot-com collapse.
In fact, all the evidence we have from users suggests the Entertainment Internet probably won't happen anytime soon.
Users like email, search and research
Take the numbers assembled by former Jupiter Media Metrix analyst Drew Ianni back in early 2000. In Jupiter's US studies, users have consistently ranked email as the most popular reason for being online (92%) and search engine use as number two (83%). Then follow "research on products and services" (55%) and "research on local events, restaurants and news" (53%). "Entertainment" has never even made it onto Ianni's Powerpoint charts. Most significantly of all, Internet users' desire for Net-delivered entertainment hasn't grown, even as bandwidth slowly rises and the Internet reaches ever more consumers. At one presentation of this data, Ianni joked that his colleagues in the novelty-driven world of Internet research business chide him for delivering the same usage pattern findings year after year.
In other words, the current trends won't deliver the Entertainment Internet. That will take a sharp change in currently stable consumer behaviour.
The Web is not TV
Jupiter's research isn't the only empirical evidence undermining the vision of an Entertainment Internet. Ianni can also point to a history of failures in merging TV-style entertainment with interactive information. From Californian experiments in the 1980s to Time-Warner's 1992 Orlando trial and WebTV over the past two years, "convergent" interactive entertainment keeps failing.
As far as we can tell, consumers simply don't want to mix the passive, "lean-back" entertainment experience with the active, "lean-forward" Internet style. Users may well embrace video news clips and video email. But broader attempts to put TV on the Internet look high-risk - as do attempts to put the Internet on TV. "There's no demand for these products at a mass-market level", Ianni declares.
According to Ianni, most Internet users like the Internet for what it does now. Their main demand is greater speed: they want to do faster what they're doing already. "This is a utility medium," he says. "It has always been a utility medium, and in my opinion it will always be a utility medium".
"Utility is a dull, businesslike word, a word to describe water and electricity services. But then, Internet services and information feeds are essentially prosaic. Teams building them must sit in rooms lit by fluorescent light, staring at lines of Java code and SQL commands in Oracle, worrying about application server response, data quality and usability testing. These teams don't spend their evenings at parties with the movers and shakers of the TV and music businesses. They eat pizza from a box rather than selecting interesting pieces of finger food from a waiter's tray. They Quake more often than they Rave. Their work is useful and often elegant. It just isn't sexy.
An Internet that revolutionises entertainment, reconfigures the media giants, hurtles stars of movies and music into the information economy? Now that's entertainment!
Just remember it's only a made-up story.