Bradner's column: Is the wild child maturing?

The past few weeks have presented a mixed view on the maturity of and general thinking about the Internet.

On the one hand, a survey of Internet users shows a significant diversification of Net users and a major airline starts to offer a discount to people who book their flights through a Web site. On the other hand, Wall Street still considers Internet-related stocks with all the deliberation of a recovering drug addict being offered cocaine.

On January 14, the Pew Research Centre for the People & the Press published the results of its latest survey about Internet users. The centre's conclusion is that the Internet is going "ordinary" (to use the research organisation's descriptive word.) The survey (http://www.people-press.org/tech98sum.htm) showed that about half of the current Internet users started in the past year, and these new users are no longer as different from the general population as they once were. Slightly more than half of the new users are female, which is in line with the general population. The new users are less rich, less educated and somewhat older than their predecessors.

In addition, Internet usage patterns are changing. Accessing weather information has replaced technical news as the top use of the Net, and nine out of 10 users now consider e-mail as not just for business. It's getting harder to paint the Net as an exclusive domain for geeks, social outcasts, libertarians and hate groups. The same week that the Pew survey was released, Delta Airlines initiated a plan in which travellers who book their tickets through the Delta Web site get a small discount. This is in sharp contrast to the banking industry when it comes to offering Internet-based services. Most banks that offer customers Internet access to their accounts charge an extra fee, just like they did during early days of ATM machines.

It is a sign of maturity when companies start to understand, as the banking industry did over time with ATM machines, that they should charge less for using services that cost less to provide. Internet-based stock services have understood this for a while, but it is good to see established businesses get the picture.

In spite of all the trends that say the Internet is becoming something less special, the investor community is off in another universe. And that's a universe in which new Internet-based companies are valued far above what any rational evaluation would indicate.

The stock prices of Internet-related companies escalate at rates that are reminiscent of the biotech stocks of a decade ago, almost all of which are now trading at a small fraction of their peak values.

There will be a crash in the values of these stocks, after which reality may set in. At that time, the Internet will actually be fully mature.

Disclaimer: If the only gauge is time, then Harvard is mature, in spite of appearances. But the above is my immature view.

Scott Bradner is a consultant with Harvard University's University Information Systems. He can be reached at sob@harvard.edu.

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