Last week I spent a day at the Internet World trade show in New York City's Jacob Javits Convention Center, the same venue that has hosted recent Macworld Expositions in July. It was an interesting experience, and I found it even more so when I went back and read Matt Neuburg's report from 1997's Internet World in Los Angeles.
I was initially struck by the show's size. Two and a half years ago, Matt commented on the sparse attendance, but last week's Internet World was huge, taking up perhaps three to four times the space used by Macworld Expo and filling much of that space with attendees. I suppose it's not surprising: the Internet has not only grown at its standard breakneck pace, it's become ever more driven by large businesses and the consumer masses.
Common Themes -- Business turned out to be the common denominator for the show, with seemingly every booth trying to fit "ecommerce" into the description of their company or product - the number of ecommerce tools and services was astonishing. Almost all claimed to have "complete solutions," but even cursory glances at product information or snippets of overheard questions indicated that many of these claims were probably overblown.
A few other themes appeared - judging from the number of booths pushing such products, someone believes that audio email will be a big deal. Personally, I can't see it happening. Eudora Pro has included the PureVoice plug-in for sending audio email for some time and in my testing it combines the worst aspects of email with the worst aspects of voice mail. I'm sure many of these products are technically impressive, but I don't see what problem audio email solves that people are willing to suffer its trade-offs - large file size, no way to search the contents, and a lack of meta-information that makes scanning and archiving difficult.
Several firms were on the cusp of announcing gift registry services, which intrigued me, since I've been procrastinating for years about creating a database for my family to share gift ideas. Some of my design goals were more than these gift registry services could handle currently - like making sure people couldn't see gifts suggested or already purchased for them by others - but I suspect that within a year or so, we'll have extremely sophisticated ways of making and sharing wish lists.
Many booths advertised products or services promising to help you create "community" around your Web site. These companies didn't seem to understand that communities evolve organically around shared interests. Good tools enhance an existing community, but community happens only when people congregate, not when someone implements a Web-based message board. Simple tools - such as mailing lists - suffice if enough people are interested in acting as though they're in a community.
Unusual Ideas -- Although I mostly write about the Macintosh, I keep up with the Internet world through trade magazines and general contacts. Still, I was amazed at how many companies I'd never heard of, which turned out to be related in part to the number of companies that haven't shipped products. The number of unknowns, combined with the vast number of exhibitors, forced me to walk the floor quickly, stopping only when a booth managed to attract my attention.
I was flummoxed by one booth and name, so I stopped - and I'm glad I did, since they had an idea I've not seen before. The company is called Savedaily.com and their goal is to help individuals save money with extremely small investments as they use the Internet to shop (there's the ecommerce tie-in!). Here's how it works. Savedaily.com has deals with over 80 large Internet merchants so that a small percentage of your purchases comes back to you in the form of purchase bonuses, which Savedaily.com invests for you in one of two mutual funds. You can also invest small amounts - as low as $5 - online in these mutual funds at any time without messing around with minimum deposits, brokers, or commission fees.
I think it's a brilliant idea. Whether Savedaily.com or another firm makes it work in the long run is up in the air, since there's no telling the quality of Savedaily.com's mutual funds or the stability of Savedaily.com itself. But if the idea catches on, large investment houses might well pick up on it.
Other fascinating product ideas came from InfoCharms, an MIT Media Lab spin-off that plans to market wireless wearable Internet products that integrate into fashion, lifestyle, and health applications. The InfoCharms booth had a delightfully academic feel, with people from the Media Lab and other educational institutions showing off bewitching hardware, such as a pair of glasses with a tiny 320 by 240 heads-up display attached to one lens. Their main event, which I missed, was the Brave New World Unwired Fashion Show, highlighting innovative wearable devices using the classic fashion show approach: draping them on attractive models.
Though I didn't see the devices at the InfoCharms booth, I read that they plan to commercialize the meme tags I wrote about back in "Walking the Meme Streets of the ACM" in TidBITS-458. Now called "Smart Badges," these little devices track of who you meet at a trade show and let you trade information back and forth with those people. Here's hoping Smart Badges show up soon.
Demos -- Internet companies clearly have much more money to burn than Macintosh companies exhibiting at Macworld Expo. Giveaways and elaborate demos were common. Cable and Wireless featured an impressive presentation in which a stony-faced announcer intoned the benefits of working with Cable and Wireless while a troupe of ghostly looking performers in white juggled, danced, and cavorted on stage, synchronized perfectly with the announcer's spiel. When the announcer spoke about the reliability of Cable and Wireless's backbone network, he dropped a large silver ball into a trap door on one side of the stage, walked to the other side while saying "With our competitors, you never know what your data will look like when it's received," and promptly caught a large plastic fish that popped up from another trap door.
RADWare also drew a crowd by having its demonstrator talking intelligently about the company's high end firewall, load balancing, and network monitoring products while balancing on a tall unicycle and extracting himself from a straitjacket. It's not uncommon to see both intelligent presentations or performance stunts, but the combination of the two kept the passers-by rapt.
Thinking Back -- It's difficult to draw conclusions from my short time at Internet World. Short of Matt's article, I can't compare it to previous shows, and I get the impression that Internet World is quite different every year as some new aspect of the Internet catches fire. Still, as a spectator sport, it was worth spending the day in New York, and I'd encourage those with a strong interest in what drives the Internet to take a pass through an Internet World near you.
Don't go to Internet World if you're hoping to see Apple or a significant Macintosh presence. Some companies showed products on both iMacs and PCs, but many others were PC-only, didn't support Macintosh Web browsers, or were generally Macintosh-clueless. One Windows NT security company had a sign that said "Do you worry about NT servers?" and a guy at the booth stopped me as I was reading it to ask me the same question out loud. I retained sufficient presence of mind to say that no, like the U.S. Army, I didn't worry about NT servers because I used Mac OS servers. I did have several detailed discussions over the sole Power Mac G4 in evidence, and ran into a very few Mac-industry friends on the show floor. As an example of community, I'll take Macworld Expo over Internet World any day.