25th Anniversary Issue: Net Expands Changes Started by Cable

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The birth of the Internet clearly is one of the biggest events in the past 25 years. I have witnessed its phenomenal growth firsthand as well as the experimentation and innovation and resulting success or failure of many companies.

As a veteran of the cable television and Internet industries, it's difficult not to draw comparisons. Like the Internet, cable presented a new paradigm for reaching the public. At cable's infancy, ideas for channels devoted to specific topics such as sports, weather, music or food were considered unrealistic. Many cable industry pioneers even found it difficult to obtain funding to start their networks.

It didn't take long for consumers to show their interest, but it took the cable industry more than 15 years to build its advertising revenue to $5 billion. No matter how you measure it, the Internet achieved that same success in less than five years. Though the road to prosperity often is long, the Internet's success came relatively quickly.

Cable television created the ability to target consumers in a way that broadcast networks could not, with channels devoted to specific interests. Just as cable presented a more personalized medium than network television, the Internet was the next step in that direction, with the ability to match user interests to online content.

Successful companies built exciting new ways to do business on the Internet that further enrich the experience and empower consumers. Think about eBay. It took a well-established process and leveraged the Internet to build an enviable online auction platform.

Though people's needs haven't changed, the way they consume information and make transactions has altered drastically. Companies such as eBay, Amazon, Monster, America Online's AOL, Yahoo, Orbitz, Google and Weather.com had a direct impact on that shift.

Amazon made a virtue out of its online customer service and one-click technology, eBay revolutionized the auction business and Monster upended the traditional newspaper classifieds business. Yahoo, AOL and MSN's Hotmail helped reignite personal correspondence albeit via e-mail. Weather.com added a new dimension to personalized weather news. Google brought a new meaning to directory search.

Helping People Cope

As people's lives get busier, the Internet helps them cope. In less than a decade, the Internet has reached a point at which sites like Amazon, and even bricks-and-mortar retailers, can build brands online, transact via e-commerce and deliver results.

Catalogers like L.L. Bean and Lands' End get a large percentage of their sales online. Even retail behemoths like Wal-Mart and J.C. Penney have robust e-commerce sites. The country's largest bookseller, Barnes & Noble, has a site matching Amazon's shipping and discount offerings. And don't forget travel, a category most revolutionized by the Internet.

Changes in consumer behavior are most obvious by the way they consume news online. Publishers can interact with their audience through immediate updates rather than just once a day. Media outlets learned what content was best suited for which medium, and advertisers quickly followed.

However, even as the Internet's effectiveness in online advertising, news delivery and e-commerce is proven, challenges remain. Content publishers are trying to balance respecting consumer privacy and meeting advertiser needs to reach their customers. Other issues germane to e-commerce are shipping charges, fears of credit card fraud, overcommunicating with customers and unsolicited e-mail.

Yet the Internet's future remains limitless. At the least, it presents an alternative, effective medium for news, e-commerce, marketing and communications.


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