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November 30, 2000

From Our Correspondent: Hirohito and the War
A conversation with biographer Herbert Bix

From Our Correspondent: A Rough Road Ahead
Bad news for the Philippines - and some others

From Our Correspondent: Making Enemies
Indonesia needs friends. So why is it picking fights?

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MARCH 17, 2000 VOL. 26 NO. 10

A Gathering Of Geeks
Not all networking happens at the keyboard
By STUART WHITMORE Taipei

 
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"This is very un-IandI," smiles Glen Carberry as he notes the conference start time - a brutal 8:15 a.m. Net slaves usually work past midnight and rarely awake before the remains of last night's pizza have turned to stone. Yet here was Carberry, founder of a Hong Kong Internet start-up, along with 200 other bleary-eyed netrepreneurs assembled in Taiwan at a highly unusual hour for a highly unusual summit - the first-ever pan-Asian gathering of the region's core geekhood, the people who, arguably, have had a lot to do with the outbreak of dotcom mania.

You can call them Netheads, but they call themselves (as Carberry implied) members of "IandI" (pronounced eye-and-eye). That's self-inflicted shorthand for the Internet and Information association. It is not a formal group. No one pays dues and the membership roster is little more than an ever-mutating e-mail list. But, like the Internet itself, IandI has exponentially ballooned into a formidable vehicle for exchanging business cards and business plans, for networking with others, for serendipitous meetings of the minds, for striking deals and striking gold.

"IandI is not an organization, it's a community," says Jonathan Hakim, the group's chairman and co-founder of online stock-trading firm Boom.com. "It comes from Jamaica, from [reggae music icon] Bob Marley - I and I unite."

If it seems the group got its name over many pints of beer, it did. For one thing, it isn't from Jamaica. IandI coalesced about two years ago when a handful of Hong Kong's Internet pioneers began meeting regularly over drinks to swap ideas and energy. At the time, it was more evangelical movement than industry, and the devoted Netheads frequently bemoaned the fact that no one took them seriously. "I would try and talk to Hong Kong Telecom or somebody and they'd say, 'Who are you? You're a start-up? We don't understand, who do you know?' " Hakim recalls with irony.

What began as a kind of loose-knit support group (turn up at the weekly meeting, grab a brew and a piece of carpet, share some insights and some sympathy) is verging on becoming an institution - and hence is starting to lose sight of its purpose, according to some. IandI has sprouted branches in Singapore, Beijing, Manila and Shanghai as well as Taipei and four U.S. cities. The weekly Hong Kong meetings, now held in hotel function rooms instead of smokey joints, are usually jam-packed not only with Internet types but also with all manner of hangers-on: venture capitalists and sharp-suited investment bankers scouting deals, hustlers and pretenders hoping inspiration and money will rub off on them, even journalists trying to sense a shift in Internet winds or find a new company to write about.

Last month's Taiwan conference, an assembly of IandI regulars from the far-flung branches, was held in a spanking-new center in Taipei, courtesy of Jeffrey Koo, scion of one of Taiwan's leading business families and a recent convert to the information revolution. Instead of casual networking, the affair amounted to two days of ponderous speeches with titles such as "New Technology, Trends and Challenges" backed by computerized PowerPoint demonstrations - ostentibly banned from IandI meetings because they smack of commercialism. Heavyweight guest speakers included Taiwan Deputy Premier Liu Chao-Shiun and Prime Minister Vincent Siew.

To some, things felt a bit too scripted and corporate. Backlash was in the air. "We like to think of ourselves as idealists . . . working together to change the way things are done and helping each other," Hakim says. Yet more than a few attendees grumbled from the fringes about feeling cheapened by the influx of money into latecomers like tom.com, Hong Kong tycoon Li Ka-shing's almost-empty shell of an Internet portal that just raised $98 million with a stock-market listing. "The Internet is a tool for the little guy," says Carberry. "Great ideas should be the most important currency." Now, Carberry says, "Everyone is scared that if Microsoft came along to shut them up for $20 million then they might take it."

If something has been lost (Innocence? Romance? Revolutionary fervor?), something has been gained. After all, Peter Hamilton, one of the original IandI-ites, used to run a clumsy e-commerce website that sold sandwiches and Christmas trees over the Internet and was called Monty Wong's Webshop. Now he is chief operating officer of Chinadotcom Corp., a bonafide Internet octopus with a market cap of $5.8 billion. Success "is a two-sided coin," says Robby Yung of Hong Kong Internet design firm OSInternet. "A lot of 'real' Internet people used to pooh-pooh America Online saying it was a watered-down service. But companies like that put everybody else in business."

Some still resent the direction the industry is taking. "It's a natural reaction," says Carberry. "All of a sudden someone with billions of dollars can come in and purport to be an authority on the Internet when you've been slogging away for years. It either lessens all the hard work or - even worse - tells us that we've done it the hard way." Yes, but at least people are taking you seriously now.

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