E-tailers look for big profits in small packages

Spring Internet World 2000 highlights what's next from coin-sized music players to a click-and-sniff Internet.

By day, they yammered like carnival barkers amid pounding music, cheeky models, and cheesy sideshows spread through three gargantuan exhibition halls.

By night, they schmoozed over kabobs, couscous, and other free food in jazz clubs and hotels.

From the downtown Convention Center to the House of Blues, Los Angeles this past week was the venue of choice for 50,000 of the top minds and marketers in e-commerce and Internet technology.

They've come here for Spring Internet World 2000 - the world's largest event dedicated to e-business. And they've brought along new technologies that, depending on your viewpoint, will either change the world or end up on the garbage heap of history.

There are the headsets that will read your e-mail to you aloud, for example. Or how about the music player that's no bigger than a coin? There's even a push to create devices that will let you smell what's on the World Wide Web.

So what does all this mean?

The most obvious point to glean from this ever-growing trade show hullabaloo is that the industry is growing at warp speed. It's only the seventh show in history, but already some 800 exhibitors paid from $5,000 to several hundred thousand dollars for their display booths. Indeed, this year's show is 75 percent larger than last year's edition.

Big names such as Apple, IBM, and Real Networks shared the stage with dozens of smaller wannabes like Flyswat, eMobee and Bizbuyer.com.

Where is it all going?

What is less obvious - as the Chutes-and-Ladders stock-market fury of April 3 proved - is where will it all ultimately lead. As several leading analysts milling about on the exhibition floor said: No one knows which new ideas and applications will stick and which will fade. There are new ideas here, new twists on old ideas, and scores of copycats to sort out.

Looking them all over were pessimists and optimists alike, oftentimes within the same person.

"The cynic in me says this show is about getting as much money as possible and spending it with both hands," says Alex Pournelle, a contributing editor for Byte.com, after pounding the exhibition floor here for two days. "The realist in me says this might actually be a complete change in the way we view our world through the Web browser."

In a nutshell, the common theme among the hundreds of ideas displayed here is that participants wanted to make the Internet a more-integral part of daily life.

That means finding ways for people to access the World Wide Web not only from their desks, but also while they're walking down the street or playing in the yard. By increasing ease of access, the industry hopes, the number of Internet consumers - already growing - will explode.

Trends from this year, some not even visible a year ago, include:

*The growth of application-service providers (ASPs), which give businesses new ways to collect and manage information. With ASPs, consumers and businesses can access their complete, personal databases from anywhere in the world via the Internet, instead of from just an at-home or business-based computer.

In other words, anywhere you can log on, you can call up and manipulate whatever information you want - from photos to documents previously stored only on a personal hard drive.

And there are more services to help you package, interpret, and problem solve. They can, for instance, help with taxes, stock-market investments, or making an inventory of warehouse stocks.

*Real-time interfaces for e-business allow Internet users to get answers to questions immediately. Online personnel can speak or type answers in real time, aiding Internet users befuddled by the Web.

There are also more services to help computer illiterates get up to snuff about setting up e-commerce for their own mom-and-pop operations. And there are new ways to show businesses how to tailor their sites to suit their own and clients' wishes.

*The technology is getting smaller, smaller, smaller. Tiny keyboards can be sewn into clothes, eyepieces can display e-mails, and headsets and jewelry can dictate electronic messages aloud.

One prototype featured the music player the size of a half-dollar. Another featured a touch-screen computer monitor one-quarter of an inch thick that could be stuck onto a refrigerator and permanently connected to the Internet.

Moreover, people here are trying to increase the use of audio and video components on the Web. Several efforts want to expand that sensual experience even further, providing three-dimensional glasses and headgear that can convey scents.

Stay tuned

A final note.

For all the money that was sunk into laser-light shows and dancing girls here, analysts say the ramp onto the Information Superhighway remains a slippery slope.

Many companies will fail, others will morph, and still others will merge, trying to forecast the future of Internet use.

"This is essentially the foremost mating ritual for the e-industry," said Frank Catalano, a leading industry analyst and marketing consultant.

"There's way too much venture capital chasing way too few good ideas," he says. "What may be the most compelling reading of what's going on here is that this is an industry on the increase."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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