"The History of every major Galactic Civilization tends to pass through three distinct and recognizable phases, those of Survival, Inquiry and Sophistication, otherwise known as the How, Why and Where phases. For instance, the first phase is characterized by the question How can we eat? the second by the question Why do we eat? and the third by the question Where shall we have lunch?"

--From The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy

With some tweaking, the above observation by the late, great Douglas Adams could easily apply to small-company Web efforts. Panicked by early imperatives from the new-new-thing contingent, business owners initially fretted over how to get something -- anything -- up there. Flags duly planted, entrepreneurs next sought validation for their investments in terms of ... what? Sales? Service? Efficiency? Image? Only CEOs who understood why their businesses were on the Web could advance to the next question: "Where will the Web take my business?" This year's Web Awards honor companies that have reached that third phase.

The 2002 Web Awards demanded more of applicants than our past three competitions did. Instead of focusing on the sites themselves, we invited company owners to tell us their stories and describe their Internet strategies. In the judging, we favored business architects who built Web strategies into their foundations or who later incorporated them into load-bearing walls. And more than ever, we looked for evidence of profitability.

Although we have previously bestowed awards for design and marketing, the emphasis on strategy made such categories seem reductive. Instead, we went into the judging with no predetermined criteria, expecting the entries themselves to guide us. In the end we arrived at three categories for evaluating our applicants:

  • Killer Apps applauds particularly innovative and muscular Web-based applications, the kind that remind us how much the technology makes possible. (See " Really Useful Engines.")
  • Start-up Strategies honors founders who treat the Web as a tool -- not a platform -- for building companies. (See " Early to Web.")
  • Transformations recognizes businesses that are drawing on the Internet's vitality in order to renew and reinvent themselves. (See " No Baby Steps.")

The greater demands on this year's applicants reduced the number of entries to 231, down from 800 in 2001. But companies also provided us with much more information than in years past. In addition, many companies were able to quantify returns on their Web investments.

There may be a fourth phase in the history of Web commerce, characterized by the question "Who will use this technology to become the business leaders of tomorrow?" That one's easy.

Congratulations to the 2002 winners.

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