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Consumers are key to Web future

May 28, 1999
Web posted at: 2:54 p.m. EDT (1854 GMT)

by Jeff Walsh


SAN FRANCISCO (IDG) -- At the Macromedia User Conference here Tuesday, Netscape chief technology officer Marc Andreessen delivered his vision of how the Web would evolve over the next few years.

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Andreessen, cited as one of the founders of the Web phenomenon with the introduction of the commercial Web browser, said consumers are the key for the industry to move forward, and that the computing industry has to deliver products focusing on them as the end-users, rather than assuming technical expertise as many products do today.

Andreessen cited a study done by Netscape-AOL that showed people are spending more time online and relying more on the Web. He also joked that the demographic of online users is changing.

"The Net used to be 50 percent men and 50 percent men pretending to be women," Andreessen joked, before delivering the real statistics of the study.

The study found that more women are using the Web today than were two and a half years ago, but the most dramatic information was that in that same time frame, the average AOL user's time spent online has grown from 14 minutes a day to 55 minutes a day.

"To have people spending 55 minutes online is fascinating, because they are not doing something else. There are a fixed number of minutes in a day," Andreessen said, noting television viewing is the main casualty of the growth of the Web.

Andreessen also said the Internet will be crucial in deciding political elections, in much the same way television changed the political landscape. In the 1960 election with the presidential debates between John F. Kennedy and Richard M. Nixon, Kennedy's presence on television was so much better than Nixon's that he was deemed the winner, despite radio listeners thinking Nixon had won.

Andreessen also poked fun at Texas Governor George W. Bush, whose all-but-announced presidential campaign has bought up hundreds of domain names -- such as to prevent spoof sites.

"I'm looking forward to seeing what they do with these URLs," Andreessen said. "Hopefully they'll take advantage of them."

At present, all of the registered Bush domains point to his main Web site.

Andreessen also noted that when Rosie O'Donnell and Tom Selleck debated the National Rifle Association and gun control on her talk show, the talk show host received more than 100,000 e-mail messages on the subject. And when teen singing sensation Britney Spears recently held an online chat, 240,000 people signed on to participate.

Andreessen used these examples to illustrate that the Net gets more useful as more people use it. He then switched gears and talked about the "serial killer apps" on the Internet. A serial killer app, as opposed to a killer app, just keeps getting more useful and more killer as people keep coming online, according to Andreessen.

Andreessen listed the five serial killer apps as: e-mail, the Web, instant messaging, online calendaring, and auctions. There are still some problems with the technology, though. With instant messaging, whereby users can chat online in real-time, the number one message sent on those systems is "Are you there?" And according to research, the number two most-sent instant message is "What are you wearing?"

"That's actually true," Andreessen told the chortling crowd.

Andreessen said serial killer apps are the reasons people get online, but once online they are not limited to these five arenas.

"From there, we all benefit even if we're not related to these apps, because they're now online," Andreessen said, noting that the growth rate of the Internet can be projected by the growth rate of the serial killer apps.

The three technology trends Andreessen identified as helping this growth to happen are new devices for accessing the Internet, a collapse in personal computer prices, and new high-bandwidth access to the Internet.

Andreessen said he didn't think there would be one winner in the connectivity arena, because consumers will most likely want different options such as having broadband access at home, dial-up connectivity while remote and wireless access on their mobile devices.

But the main challenge to the computing industry, according to Andreessen, is noting that the industry is no longer about technology.

"This is a consumer phenomenon and people will care about what it has to offer them. We are not the market going from here on out," Andreessen said.

Andreessen said technology up until now has been driven by the computer industry, but the people within the industry are way ahead of the learning curve on computers, and that must be taken into account.

"You can't determine whether to build a bridge by counting the number of swimmers," Andreessen said. "Consumers don't care about technology at the end of the day."

Citing a problem in his own creation, he said the Web browser still features poor navigation, noting that forward and back doesn't do enough. The new Palm V, which he noted was more expensive than a PC, does not allow you to access the Web out of the box, but instead requires end-user configuration.

"We have to try hard and liberate ourselves from assumptions," Andreessen said.

He deflected specific product questions, such as whether Netscape's Gecko next-generation browser would have full standards support, although he encouraged the developers to "beat the hell out of" the Netscape team if there is not complete standards support.

Noting the very AOL-friendly movie, "You've Got Mail," Andreessen said you never saw Tom Hanks or Meg Ryan downloading Java applets or doing anything complex. They only sent e-mail and chatted in real-time, which is more akin to what consumers are doing.

Andreessen cited the iMac as a perfect fit for this consumer model as opposed to the world of high-tech speeds and feeds that mean nothing to consumers.

"The hardest part is deciding which color you want," Andreessen said, parroting Apple's ad campaign, but adding, "and that's the way it should be."

Looking at consumer behaviors, Andreessen said the only things that resonate with consumers are things that make their lives easier and help get things done faster, such as VCRs, microwaves, cell phones, and WalMarts. He said computing needs to have as simplistic a user interface as television for it to hit consumers.

"We have to make this stuff much more simple at every step of the chain," Andreessen said. "That's our opportunity. We've come a long way, but we still only reach three percent of the world population. We can make this more widespread."

Jeff Walsh ( is an InfoWorld senior writer.

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