Like you, we just knew there was gold to be found on the information superhighway -- so we sent a techno-savvy writer out to launch a business on the Internet and prove it. Here, expletives deleted, is her report
When Inc. magazine decided to break new ground and publish the one-trillionth story ever written about the information superhighway, I volunteered to start a business on the Internet and chronicle the experience for our readers. It was a beautiful moment in the history of selling story ideas: our fortunate readers would get an exhaustive explication of how to make a bundle on the Internet, and I would get the bundle.
Who, after all, hasn't heard about awesome opportunities on the Internet? We all could be making money and friends around the world via the global computer network, which nobody owns, which the government subsidizes, and where almost anybody with a modem, a PC, and a couple of bucks can bum a ride. What only a decade ago was an enclave of a few thousand junior professors, Department of Defense dweebs, and assorted other techno-weenies is now a worldwide colony of some 20 million users. A giddy press reports that even grandmothers are on the Net. Nearly 100,000 new users are logging on each month. And despite psychotic protests from the weenies, the Net is going commercial. Virtual entrepreneurs are racing to sell, advertise, and distribute products and services in cyberspace. The gold rush is on. Under the guise of my Inc. assignment, I too would stake my claim. I'd be an electronic mogul before the story ever saw print, I figured. Sometimes, I thought, you just get lucky.* * *
Who knew what business opportunities awaited on the electronic frontier: perhaps I'd break into publishing? Software? Entertainment? Through the Internet itself I'd research markets (all those databases!), locate partners or raise a little capital (the marvels of electronic mail!), and win customers (millions -- only keystrokes away!). Like most wanna-bes, I lacked only the right idea. Cruising the Net was sure to produce it.
A bootstrap operation, my venture would be held together with a phone line, a modem, a 486 PC, and an account with a local gateway provider, which would connect me to the Internet whenever I dialed. Financing it all on a travel-and-entertainment budget meant I'd brave the raw Internet, not one of the commercial on-line services, like America Online (AOL) and CompuServe, which offer only limited access to the available data lode and sell the best information Ă la carte. The Internet, by contrast, serves an all-you-can-eat buffet. Without the niceties of an interface, it was bound to be an ugly but cheap date. Still, how hard could it be? I'd buy a book or two and follow my instincts. I was no phobe, no clueless newbie: I had mastered flirting in the chat rooms on AOL, run my biorhythm chart on CompuServe, and even attended a "Drivers' Training for the Internet" seminar. I signed up for a volume-user account with Software Tool & Die, in Brookline, Mass. -- 20 hours a month for 20 bucks -- and prepared for my launch as an internaut. It would be a virtual cakewalk.* * *
Day One: The Launch
It takes four attempts and nearly 20 minutes just to log on. OK, I scrolled a little quickly through the directions and made up a password instead of using the one assigned. Must we be slaves to the rules? The prompt, to which I direct my commands and queries, doesn't answer. The recalcitrant prompt rarely answers, because the Internet, it turns out, does not speak English. It speaks a babel of computer languages, and where I dial from, the mother tongue is UNIX, an operating system with a syntax that makes DOS seem as simple as pig latin.
I refuse, however, to be intimidated. I thumb again through The Instant Internet Guide, The Internet Companion , and Internet Instant Reference for a few choice phrases in UNIX. I type h-e-l-p to the on-line guides. But there's entirely too much "help." Maybe I should read one of the countless FAQs (lists of frequently asked questions)? I type h-e-l-p e-v-e-r-y-t-h-i-n-g. That is not a valid request.* * *
The Hydrant: How Do You Turn It Off?
Two days later, having dutifully read up on "help," I'm ready to peruse the electronic klatches known as newsgroups. I have plastered my terminal with a necklace of pink and yellow Post-it notes -- hastily scrawled UNIX commands to remind me how to remove, kill, stop stuff. I spend most of my time removing, killing, stopping stuff. In the infoblizzard that is the Internet, knowing how to make an emergency exit from any program at any time is essential.
I set out to cruise newsgroups such as misc.entrepreneurs, where I hope to find like-minded pioneers discussing the hottest business ideas of the day. I start a program called rn (for read news) and am invited to subscribe to alt.barney.die.die.die. I type, politely, n. But the invitations don't stop. In the oppressive inclusivity of the Internet, I am asked if I wish to join each of more than 3,500 newsgroups that cover topics from Star Trek to deviant sex. After declining 500 or so, I am ready to beat my head on the n key. There must be a simpler way. I look up a nifty trick to short-circuit the process. Two and a half hours later, my timesaving technique leaves me frozen in an editing program that dates from the Paleolithic era. I am desperate to escape. I try ^C, ^Q, ^Z, ^GET ME OUTTA HERE. I try ^KILLKILLKILL. Then I turn the machine off.
Virtual Rule Number One: When in doubt, log out.
Unfortunately, my host computer saves the whole mess, and when I reboot, I face it all again. When at last I land among my fellow entrepreneurs, I find an endless flamefest over a blight of multilevel marketers on the Internet. Flaming is the public and ritualistic flogging of individuals through insult. People indulge in it with glee on the Internet -- where the anonymity and immediacy of E-mail erase such inhibitions as common decency. But, jeez, I don't want to spend the rest of the morning bashing some poor Amway distributor. I've got to stay focused.
I strike out to research the hottest markets, relying on a gopher to guide me through the Internet's rich fields of facts and figures. Gopherspace is where users window-shop in archives using menu-driven indexes. I browse for information. From the federal government, for instance. Riding one gopher, I discover that the Environmental Protection Agency regulations regarding groundfish in the Gulf of Alaska have changed. Noteworthy. Maybe I should look into the groundfish biz. Hours later I am still deep in gopherspace, reading oceans of cool stuff of no value to my nascent endeavor. With more than 20,000 gopher servers in the world, getting lost on a random walk is not a risk. It's a certainty. Why am I checking the weather in northern Thailand? I recognize there is little competitive advantage in knowing it's pouring in Bangkok. I'm on an info high. The torrent of data -- a tiny fraction, really, of the Internet's 10 terabytes (or 28,000 times the Oxford English Dictionary) -- has created whiteout conditions in my brain.
Virtual Rule Number Two: If you don't know exactly what you want and where to get it, no big deal. Is this cool or what?* * *
Days have passed that I can't account for. When I am not trying to download binary files that replicate armpit noises, I check out alt.barney.die.die.die. The schedule has begun to slip.
Better buckle down, or I'll never find my fortune. I read about an opportunity to wholesale snake venom. (It has medicinal applications, you know.) And briefly consider getting into software. Software jocks appear to make a go of it on the Net. Regrettably, the code I know is for killing programs, not creating them. I explore publishing. After all, that's what I know. I happen upon a list of "'zines" -- obscure little electronic periodicals put out by obscure little publishers. They include titles such as Scream, Baby. Sounds lucrative. Given that what the flamed-out citizenry of cyberia seem to do most is scream, baby (for free), who would trouble to pay for more? In the gardening group, a haven of sheltering gentility, I hear about a fantastic fertilizer: elephant dung. Maybe I could market that. The gardeners are certainly hot for it. But there's competition -- ZooDoo -- so I beg off. I should have copied the E-mail address of that Amway distributor.
When no one is looking, I buy a copy of The Internet for Dummies. It brings me no closer to my own place on the Inc. 500, but I do learn how to "finger" people on the Net. I try to finger everybody I can think of, including the vice-president of the United States. Fear not; national security has not been breached. Al would not be fingered. But this is how people who spend long, fruitless hours on the Net get their kicks.
By day 17, I'm no longer desperate. I'm delusional. It's 10:24:51 p.m., and I'm E-mailing myself: Is this a plot or what? Everything is falling into place: I haven't been dispatched to start a business. I've been dispatched to disappear. Yeah. Inc. has exiled me to my basement, set me adrift on the Internet, presumed I'd never be heard from again. A virtual pink slip.
Virtual Rule Number Three: Don't try to conquer the Internet alone. Seek professional help.* * *
The Quest for an Interface
I get by with a little help from my friends.
Maybe it's time to admit defeat. It was utter hubris to imagine I'd survive the raw Internet, much less build an empire. I need an interface. According to people I once considered clueless Luddites, a wonder program, Mosaic, will change my life. It reduces the chaos of the Internet to the order of a point-and-click interface. I could find my way out of the breakdown lane and get about the business of starting a business. Most miraculous of all, Mosaic is free. Yes! Free! I must have this program. I E-mail my host:
Date: Thu, 28 Apr 1994 13:47:26
From: Anne M Murphy amurphworld.std.com>
Subject: interfaces, interfaces!!!
Can you tell me whether or not it is possible to run Mosaic on a 486 machine? And if so, how can I get my hands on it? I've heard that it might make the learning experience less painful for this new user. Does Software Tool & Die make it available? Please help me find a kinder, gentler way to navigate the Net. UNIX is killing me. . . . Anne
P.S. The hype that tells us the infobahn is here for the masses is a BIG LIE.
Four hours later, a solicitous staffer responds in riddles. "Mosaic," she writes, "is a software program that requires the use of a dedicated Internet connection direct from your local host computer to the Internet network. This type of connection is called IP service. Your host does not support IP service."
But, she adds, I can procure Mosaic on my own "via FTP from the site ftp.ncsa.uiuc.edu." Of course.
After 13 phone calls, five faxes, nine days, and $69.50, I get IP service through a SLIP connection from Netcom, a national gateway provider based in San Jose, Calif. Now, with the pipeline installed, I buzz over to the University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign (uiuc.edu) to pluck Mosaic from its archives. I knock on the door with FTP, a file-transfer program. Can't get in. Try to FTP again. No go. Try really hard again and again. Server is busy, busy, busy. Channels are clogged. No room for another desperate, anonymous user at any hour of the day or night. But I don't bag it all to read the news in alt.sex, as a normal user would. No, I call upon archie, a tool for searching archives, to look for alternative sites. In my best UNIX, I type archie -h Archie.ans.net Mosaic.
I find it at Yale (cs.yale.edu) and burrow through the directories to locate it in /pub/MS-Windows/NCSA. I cross my fingers, issue my fetch command, and wait for Mosaic to heed my call. Beyond my wildest imaginings, it does. I am actually FTP-ing my grail. My ticket to fame, fortune, and hassle-free adventure on the Internet has just been punched. It takes 20 minutes to FTP this mother of a program (it weighs 92 bazillion bytes or so), and when it lands, it squats on my disk like a huge memory omnivore. But it's mine. After 50 hours on-line, I declare victory. I'm poised to point and click my way into business.
But to my horror, I discover I still need IP software to make my SLIP connection recognize my terminal. And the Mosaic documentation informs me I should have something else, called Winsockets, to make the IP software work with Windows. Celebration aborted.
I follow the instructions, which say to buy Winsockets lest I end up with an incomplete or bug-riddled version from the Net. When I explain my problem to the guy at Egghead Software, he shows me a flight-simulator game. No, no. I need full-metal communications utilities, I explain. His screen goes blank. I resign myself to take what I can get from the Net.
Though detoured, I am no longer going this alone. In the true spirit of entrepreneurship, I finagle free expertise from a friend with a computer-science degree from Yale and a black belt in cybersurfing.
Date: Thu, 28 Apr 1994 14:28:39
From: Anne M Murphy amurphworld.std.com>
Subject: a desperate plea for help
Luis -- you MUST come to my aid. I am hopelessly lost on the Internet and fear I might die before I ever learn to speak UNIX. What do you want in exchange for a short seminar on navigating the Net? Dinner? Dessert? You name it: if you can get me out of this mess, I'll do it. I mean, I am WAY over my head. Awaiting a rescue, Anne.
He accedes after more shameless groveling. Once I've plied him with pasta puttanesca, Luis and I rummage around Washington University at St. Louis to find and FTP Winsockets. We try to unzip it -- it is a massive, compressed file -- but can't until we fish the Net again for a copy of pkunzip, which will allow us to open the Winsockets program, which will permit us to run the Mosaic program, which will enable us to navigate the Net, which of course we already had to KNOW HOW TO DO to get the interface to run IN THE FIRST PLACE.
Virtual Rule Number Four: The Internet is tautological. To master it, all you have to know is how to master it. Or, as Luis says, "If you don't have a pet geek, don't even bother."
Eventually, we assemble the battery of software needed to run Mosaic and spend the remaining hours of the night installing and debugging. (I'm mainly eating cookies through this part, but I try to look attentive.) Finally, Luis invokes Mosaic. Pop goes the window. Bing, here come the buttons to click. Crash falls the system.
The third time's the charm, and in a moment of profound anticlimax, Mosaic slouches toward me. I agree to a quick tour. I'm too tired and near blind to conduct a full exploration. I beckon a binary file the on-line tour guide recommends.
About seven minutes later there appears on my screen a picture of a statue of a stone heroine rendered in classical Greek style with her arms cast wide. Is this Our Lady of the Internet, welcoming me to the wonders of a menu-driven world? Or is it just a pig of a binary file, signifying nothing? I may never know. But my rite of passage is complete. I'm heading back to check out the market for elephant dung. And I'll give deeper consideration to groundfish. If neither pans out, I'll found a national organization of Internet survivors, complete with books, videos, CD-ROMs, and an electronic bulletin board for the virtually impaired. Naturally, we'll negotiate rights to the movie, a feature-length film about cruising the information superhighway. Working title: Revenge of the Roadkill.
For those still willing to risk a ride on the Internet, take my advice: Crack the help files. Learn to make a good puttanesca sauce. And find yourself a Luis.