Web adolescence

As any parent who has survived it will tell you, adolescence is a balancing act between tantalizing potential and nerve-racking risk. So it's a mixed blessing that the Web is now arriving at its own riveting version of this stage.

On the potential side, there persists a profound belief that the Web holds the power to change the future of business. On the risk side, however, there will inevitably be awkward growth spurts and spectacular screw-ups. So what are some of the lessons corporate IT and business can learn as the immature Web finds its way to adulthood? Here are three to consider:

Lesson No. 1: Practice discretion. (Revealing too much means regretting it later.)Unbeknownst to many organizations, their own Web sites have evolved into gold mines for competitors. Companies are posting everything from floor plans and manufacturing processes to details about network infrastructure and employee travel schedules. Even if online discretion isn't a problem for your firm, it may be for one of your partners or suppliers.

Experts advise that before company content goes up online, a review team from the legal, human resources, marketing, IT and business units should approve it. (Well, that should ensure you'll never post anything again.)Lesson No. 2: Readjust to bottom-line realities. (There really is no free lunch.)There was a flurry of stories last week about the impending demise of free e-mail services, as both Yahoo Inc. and Microsoft Corp. launched premium paid services for e-mail forwarding or additional storage space that would cost avid users US$20 to $30 a year. Portal player Terra Lycos is also toying with paid e-mail services.

Of course, as any publisher knows, e-mail was never free in the first place. It was advertiser-supported in the hope that millions of eyeballs would mean millions of transactions. Wrong. Advertisers are now curled up in fetal positions, waiting for the economy to improve. Analysts say it will take years for fee-based e-mail to catch on because of consumer resistance to paying for a "free service." Wrong again. People will pay for what they value although it certainly won't be six different e-mail addresses.

Lesson No. 3: Avoid magical thinking. (Bad things don't disappear when you ignore them.)Many businesses seem determined to overlook unpleasant realities, such as the burgeoning threat of viruses, worms and Trojan horses. As we reported in our Future Watch feature last week ("Malware's Destructive Appetite Grows"), the problem is escalating. In 1998, there were 262 known vulnerabilities in all operating systems and 40,000 known viruses. Today, there are 10 times the operating system vulnerabilities and 59,000 viruses, according to the CERT Coordination Center and TruSecure Corp. They're multiplying faster, propagating more efficiently and attacking networks much more effectively.

The next frontier for rogue software will get even more personal: invading our cell phones and PDAs. Security experts are predicting a major outage of at least one nationwide service within the next five years, and it probably won't take that long.

One comforting thought is that adolescence mercifully passes. The Web will mature, and we will look back on these difficult years and say, "That wasn't so bad, was it?"

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