Friday, March 14, 2014

The Web: 25 Years and Counting

If you’re under the age of 30, I may have to give you welcome notice that I don’t plan on talking about the history of the Internet by telling you that “back in my day we had to walk four miles in the snow to go to school.”   That said, I’ll skip the parts where we actually relied on the Post Office to deliver news releases, we used land lines as a primary means to reach out to the media and others, fax machines were the latest breakthrough technology, and we had to wait for the morning to see what was in the news.

Rather, I’ll fast-forward to a strange but eye-opening business party I attended in Silicon Valley during the height of the dot-com bubble.

It was the night I looked around the room and saw right in front of me the transformation the Internet had already made and got a glimpse of how it would change just about everything. This is the late 1990s, less than ten years since the Internet had been launched in 1989.

I was in San Jose for a tech conference.  The company I worked for was in the thick of the national dialogue about making high-speed Internet or broadband a reality.  To this time, no one could stream all of the data-heavy entertainment, gaming and other content the way we do now.   The technological solutions that our company offered promised to help enable the phone companies to roll out broadband to the masses.

Some things get lost today when we hear terms like “dot-com bubble.” The term conjures well-founded images of excess, over-valued companies and pointless business concepts. But during that period, amidst all of that noise was a very real truth.

The Internet, already making change, would continue change the world in ways most people couldn’t realistically imagine. Today, so much of what we do is reliant on the Internet, and yet much of what we already take for granted can trace its roots to a conceptual period in the mid-1990s when people congregated in places like Silicon Valley.  People I remember meeting and interfacing with.

At this party, it was all open collars, golf shirts and a few tie-dyed tee shirts thrown in for good measure.  The service staff was decked out in futuristic Star Trek-like costumes best described today as the kind of look the cast on TV’s Big Bang Theory would dream about.  The Star Trek theme was carried out in the décor and lighting.  The party’s hosts knew their audience.

That audience consisted of the people who brought you the Internet you know today.  Some were code-obsessed electrical engineers.  These weren’t just any engineers. These were the brilliant among the brilliant.  Others in the room were people with roots in the telecommunications business, and still many others from all walks of life.  The one thing all had in common was they were there to see what they could do with the Web’s potential.

Then there were the professionals. Investment bankers, investors, journalists, lawyers, dealmakers of all kinds, financial analysts, industry analysts, buy-side analysts, sell-side analysts.  They were all there…analyzing.

The conference was all about broadband and how its potential could be realized at all levels – research and development, delivery to millions of homes, creation of media channels, and of course, the generation of revenue.  Commerce. E-commerce.

But for me, it wasn’t the educational material or the formal presentations of that week that brought the meaning of all this home to me.  It was that moment at that party where I looked around.  I saw the intellectual power in the room, the sheer business clout of this collection of companies and resources, the dramatic shift in business etiquette, and a feeling, an energy that can only be described as how an NFL player might feel if standing in the tunnel, underneath the stands as 100,000 raucous people waited for the start of the Super Bowl.  Only in our case, it was about 150 people who all understood that the things our companies were doing – large and small – the things we were discussing as dryly technical as it may have sounded to an outsider would be big.

Over a beer, someone from a telecom company told me how he was working on enabling fiber optic technology to bring movies to home computers, just an idea at that time.   An investment banker told me about a company he had just bought into that was pioneering wireless broadband.

This was the night for me that I could see we were at a point of no return.  That - in retrospect - the way we did just about everything was about to change for good.

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