The tech bust's silver lining

The near-annihilation of my fledgling 401(k) and the nagging worry of unemployment notwithstanding, I'll admit it, I'm happy the Internet industry is getting the thrashing of its young life.

As little as a year ago, maybe even six months ago, you couldn¹t go much more than an hour without hearing about some Web wizardry that would change the way we all lived and breathed. The real problem was that all those medicine-show men had the stock valuations to appear at least mildly believable, despite what your better judgement told you.

Now that sanity is returning to the market, albeit through some punishing economic hardships, perhaps we'll soon begin to see what technologies really will change the way we work and the way we live. The irony is that only now with tech stocks on their knees and venture capitalist cowering in a corner, we might actually discover the brave new world that the Web once promised.

Think about your typical e-commerce site. Last year at this time, online outfits fought tooth and nail for unique visitors, pretty much regardless of whether they spent money at the site or not. A "build it and they will come" mindset prevailed. Sites touted their rich media radios, 3D models, and--dare I say it--sock puppets.

What a difference a year makes. Now a typical e-commerce site if it's among the ones left standing sets its sights on drawing customers who will come and spend money over and over again. Forget unique views. If you're an e-commerce site that's got millions of people visiting your online venue everyday and none of them are spending a penny, what good are you? (Well if you've got that kind of traffic, maybe you should try selling some ads, but even those margins are razor-thin these days.) You need people, even just a few, who will come and spend their money regularly.

And what keeps people coming back to a store, whether in three dimensions or two? Quality products, helpful and easy-to-use customer service, and low prices make the top of a good list.

Yeah, yeah, so I've stumbled on the fundamental principles of business, big deal. Where does the Web come in? Actually, it comes in somewhere between "fundamentals" and "business."

Michael Porter wrote a compelling piece for the Harvard Business Review last month, saying the Internet will not alter the way business is done at its core. Rather, the Web provides businesses with a powerful tool to extend and leverage their existing competitive strengths.

Now that profits have come back into vogue, companies have to figure out how to make their IT investments contribute to the bottom line. That means it might not be unreasonable to expect more stable and fast-loading sites or e-commerce purchase paths that don't require a complete income history and a sample of your DNA to buy a $20 shirt.

By the same token, Web warriors might give us a smarter Internet now that the heady days of the late 1990s have ended. In fact, another irony of the frenzy that took place over the last several years is that technological progress may have actually been hindered. Everyone was so busy coming up with the next great Web site after all, that's how a company got funding that attention and creativity was focused solely on how to spruce up a static, dumb page of HTML. Now entrepreneurs might once again be rewarded for true innovation new ways of doing things that have a meaningful and useful impact.

Take the notion of computing at the edge, for example. This is an emerging area of technology that harnesses the power of a user's desktop computer to make for a richer and more powerful Web experience. The basic idea is that rather than trying to cram one huge piece of information down a narrow line of bandwidth, you can send tiny, encoded chunks that get reassembled with the help of a desktop's processor once it reaches the user.

One start-up called DynaPel, which grew out of a research lab in Munich, relies on the power of an end-user's computer to bring the promise of TV-quality streaming video to the Web today. Generally, television images are transmitted at a rate of about 25-30 frames per second, while the Web can reasonably only handle rates closer to 12-15 fps, accounting for the jerky quality seen in most streaming video. What DynaPel's system does is use the receiving computer's processor to approximate what happened in the gaps left between one frame and the next to turn video sent as low as 5-10 fps into 30-fps quality.

But that's only one of many examples of innovation seen emerging from the bloodied tech field. There are less complex, but no less important, strides being made to encourage the healthy growth of the Web.

QuarkXPress, for example, the desktop publishing software that has been the mainstay of the industry for about as long as it has existed, has come out with a version that's "printable" to the Web. It's the same old QuarkXPress that everybody knows and loves, but now it can print to paper, film, the Web, whatever. It's not earth shattering that a company is coming out with a version of its product for use on the Web, but it just shows that even the most secure players in an industry are finding the Internet important enough to integrate its technology into their core competencies.

And being part of a core competency, while not as sexy as revolutionizing every aspect of life and business, is right about where the Web ought to be.

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