When something is promoted as heavily as the internet, it is natural to look for the hidden catch. Attractive introductory offers usually turn out to be the prelude to sustained and rising demands for money. The questions for resellers are what form the demands will take and where the money will be going.
The track record of the computer industry suggests a number of possibilities. In general, IT draws people in with the promise of solutions which subsequently turn out to be only partial, or temporary, or in either case susceptible to improvement. Further solutions are offered. Because the world changes, the cycle of solutions must keep rolling on.
Some of the world?s changes are brought about by IT. The process becomes self-perpetuating, operating on several levels. At the lowest level, is the simple packaged programme. A user buys it because it does the job. Time passes, the package is improved and a new release issued. The user then exchanges files with an upgraded business partner and is obliged to upgrade as well. This may also involve a hardware upgrade. The original programme on the original machine still does the job, but the nature of it has changed, and the seeds of its own redundancy are sown.
At the highest level, an entire organisation becomes dependent on its systems. For the sake of business efficiency it has to keep them running as efficiently as possible. So it goes through the sequence of hoops the industry sets up for it: proprietary and open systems; centralised or distributed processing; hierarchical, relational, object and hybrid databases; client/server; local area networks, enterprise-wide networks and intranets; and so on. Then the organisation encounters the year 2000 problem and understands fully the ambiguous nature of the solutions it has so painstakingly assembled.
The same principles could come to apply to internet use. Once people become dependent, it is easy to imagine them accepting a regular diet of software upgrades, some of which will demand new hardware.
Another obvious area where the internet could become much more expensive is in the cost of the connection. For the moment it is the price of a local call. Americans, incidentally, express surprise at the relatively slow take-up of the internet in the UK. If Americans had to pay as much ? or even anything at all ? as we do for a local call, they might not be so surprised. How much longer the telecommunications network operators will be so generous must be an open question.
Then there is the matter of content. According to the business management gurus, information is a key corporate resource. Therefore information has a value. Therefore, when its owners have figured out how to collect, it will have a price. The weakness in this argument, you might think, lies in the idea of large numbers of ordinary people becoming dependent on the internet. If prices begin to rise steeply, won?t they just walk away? Not necessarily. Consider live football on satellite television. Is anyone happy with the subscription fees and the structure of the channels showing live matches? It seems not, but they are more likely to complain than to cancel their subscriptions. It?s hard to feel any sympathy. If no one had subscribed in the first place we might all still be able to see a game live for free on a terrestrial channel. Meanwhile, the cost of actually going to a match has risen astronomically. That is, of course, if you can get a ticket. And the money in football from TV deals has demanded recent changes to the structure of the game. So the subscribers have contributed to their own dependency.
When I started thinking about this column and deceptively attractive introductory offers, book clubs came to mind. But live football on satellite television is a much better analogy for the internet. The matches are played, in effect, on the airwaves, between people with little or no association with the towns they ostensibly turn out for ? virtual teams. The eventual impact of the Net will surely be as a medium of entertainment. If it is refined to the point where it is a viable channel for mass entertainment, all sorts of commercial possibilities open up. They won?t necessarily be pretty. People using it to order the replica strip Manchester United wear in matches against clubs with a V in the name will no doubt moan about exploitation.
But where demand and supply are in balance, there is no exploitation. The internet can generate one and fulfil the other. Perhaps, ultimately, that is the hidden catch ? and not so well hidden, when you consider what words like ?Net? and ?Web? actually mean.
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