DANA POINT, Calif. -- Their stocks may have been cut down to size, but not their hubris.
To be sure, the Internet moguls who descended this week on a trade conference here made much of the spring "correction" in dot-com stocks. It was a good thing industry valuations were slashed, they reassured everyone, because it winnowed the weak dot-coms and left more resources for the strong.
But given the size of the Internet stock slump -- one analyst noted that the sector had plummeted 61 percent since March and rebounded only 25 percent since then -- the mood at the second annual Internet Summit remained strikingly upbeat as industry executives debated their future, surfed, schmoozed and compulsively checked e-mail and stock prices on their cell phones.
Clearly, Internet pioneers and their bankers haven't lost faith in their mission: connecting the Internet to every person and thing on the planet and seeing what happens. Debate raged over who will control the wireless Internet and whether personal file-swapping software such as Napster and Gnutella can be brought under control.
While opinions differed, everyone agreed the Internet has left its glory days for an awkward adolescence. Profits suddenly matter, and the difficult work is integrating the medium to make it more coherent for consumers. Already, industry titans are counting the days until the global computer network is so entwined in the social and business fabric of everyday life that their industry may disappear, at least as a distinct entity. They mused on how the new economy is merging with the old economy to create hybrid businesses powered by the Net.
The Internet will become so basic that the conference, sponsored by Industry Standard magazine, will have to change its name soon, predicted EarthLink founder Sky Dayton: "Otherwise, it will be like the 'Electricity Summit.' "
CNet Chief Executive Halsey Minor agreed, telling the more than 400 attendees, "People are beginning to realize there is going to be one economy."
On the other hand, old-economy companies were strikingly absent from the four-day confab, which was dominated by online start-ups and their venture capitalists. Even a panel about plugging the Internet into traditional business included only one old-line company. Oddly enough, America Online Chairman Steve Case, by virtue of his company's pending merger with Time Warner, was the closest thing to an old-economy leader to speak.
Case said his company's decision to marry Time Warner was driven by the convergence of old and new media to allow people to get the same information delivered on computers, telephones, televisions and other devices. He predicted more mergers of major online and off-line companies: "The whole notion of convergence will redefine the industry."
VeriSign Chief Executive Stratton Sclavos said the inevitable disappearance of the Net sank in for him as he watched Tellme Networks demonstrate its voice-activated service that allows people to speak into cell phones to retrieve stock quotes, flight times and other online services. "It made this whole issue of 'Are we on the Net?' go away," Sclavos said.
The wireless Web is consuming the industry's attention as Internet companies struggle to retool their content and their revenue strategies to attract people to the Net through portable devices.
But the trend is younger than its cheerleaders would have you believe. Even the digerati aren't totally wireless -- 45 percent of attendees said in an electronic poll that they access the Web through a wireless device; 31 percent said they plan to soon.
Japan's top mobile carrier, NTT DoCoMo, said its cellular phone Internet service surpassed 9 million subscribers this week, more wireless Web subscribers than all United States carriers have signed up together. DoCoMo credited its popularity to its open development style, which allows any Web site to make itself accessible to wireless subscribers. U.S. phone carriers are in a strange mating dance with the top Internet portals over who will call the shots about which online services American consumers can see on their cell phones.
A Microsoft executive, of all people, warned about the perils of exerting too much control over consumers. "It's mayhem" for consumers who are feeling overwhelmed, said Rick Belluzo, vice president of Microsoft's consumer group. "The consumer doesn't want anyone to own them."
The chief executive of software company Infospace said the wireless Web requires an entirely new mind-set because it's so different from the wired Internet. "The wireless Internet is a new medium," Arun Sarin said. He predicted mobile commerce will change operations at every company, much as the wired Internet is starting to do today.
But Netscape co-founder Marc Andreessen, whose Loudcloud start-up helps companies develop Web sites, said mobile commerce is over-hyped. "The wireless Web will be mainly e-mail and voice communication for a while," he said in an interview. "I think huge amounts of mobile commerce are a ways off."
Andreessen was more upbeat about Napster, the file-swapping software that is fueling music piracy. Andreessen has invested in a file-sharing software company; he doubts technology will ever be able to prevent clever software programmers from distributing free digital copies of music, videos and other files.
An overwhelming majority of attendees nonetheless predicted Napster won't survive a court challenge from the music industry, which contends that unregulated file-swapping infringes on their copyrights.
But Bill Joy, chief scientist of Sun Microsystems, said Napster is one of many new technologies that guarantee the wild ride of the Internet is far from over.
Joy described progress underway on six different Webs: those we access from desktops, from TVs, from portable devices, with our voices, from inside corporations, and from microprocessors embedded in objects all around us. Multiple computing platforms may confuse consumers, but they also ensure that the future of computing won't be dominated by one company, the way desktop computing was by Microsoft, Joy said. Two additional forces -- molecular electronics and open standards -- will combine to "create continuous disruption in a good way" for decades to come, he concluded.
Joy's speech smacked of the upbeat spirit that marked the early days of the Internet revolution. It is a more restrained optimism than the unbridled arrogance that drives many of today's Internet entrepreneurs, and you can still catch glimpses of it in dot-com land.
Brainerd Dispatch ©2013. All Rights Reserved.