EDITORIAL: Papa Knew His Stuff

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It's been an interesting month on the dot-com front with much that passed across my desk or that I listened to at three conferences I attended so impenetrable as to make the stock market shakeout explicable on a non-economic front: Most of these people don't speak English - and they're not so hot in German, French or Spanish either.

I interviewed an ex-Israeli fighter pilot who now has a company in California that sells e-learning technology or infrastructure in the US, Europe and Israel. The initial press release seemed interesting. This company was opening a London office to sell e-learning in Europe.

The follow-up was not. They're not teaching anybody or peddling knowledge, just hardware and time on the Internet, I think. My notes taken during a half-hour conversation made no sense. "What we do is primarily rent a seat in a virtual class from your desktop. The company that sells you the content is rented the virtual seat. We charge by the hours, very much like phone charge. You pay on how much you use it. This is the age of the Internet." I guess so.

A company in Northern Ireland unveiled MINEit software at "Europe's premier Online Retailing Event - eTail 2000." Now why did that make me think of "Tailhook?" Maybe because my eyes glazed over at its claim of a "conceptual lead on other Web intelligence software in that it bases all its analysis on the visitors to the site rather than web server activity." A couple of Internet payment services offering total Web security weren't much better.

The Institute for International Research had a conference in Washington that sounded interesting: "Global Web site Localization - strategies for taking advantage of the WORLD Wide Web." But cut through the verbiage and the conference was a marketplace for selling Website translation services.

Now there is little doubt that US-centric Internet marketing has reached the end of the line. Future growth will depend on the willingness of e-tailers to do what direct marketers did a decade ago - adapt their offers to the language and the culture of markets they are trying to conquer. English may be the lingua franca of the high-tech age but the fact is that most potential web buyers don't speak it well enough to handle really important issues - like how much money they are going to spend for what.

Oh sure, they can order a meal in New York, but when it comes to money they want to be comfortably at home. So the merchants at the Washington conference had a valid point.

But the verbiage buried it. No it wasn't just translation. You needed technology. They could offer big savings. SDL International had an offer enabling global business. "SDL International provides a unique combination of products and multi-lingual services to give the complete global solution." Whatever that means. If you wanted to find out the brochure gave no address and no phone number.

InterPro proclaimed that it "speaks their language" and at least they had a phone number if you wanted to take advantage of "software localization, Web site localization, document translation and multilingual desktop publishing." Don DePalma has a Ph.D. and worked for Forrester Research until last year when he moved to Idiom Inc. as VP of corporate strategy. He made more sense than most, but I failed to follow his discourse on the technology of cultural change.

I wanted to do a news story about the conference but found too little news buried under the compulsion to match the Internet's technobabble. And yet I totally agree with the underlying principle. The Web is going global this year in ways it did not - and perhaps could not - in the nineties.

But if all these companies are serious they will have to learn language that communicates to buyers.

My advice to them is the same as it is to too many young writers whose work I must handle - read Ernest Hemingway. Papa knew his stuff.

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