Is Internet Time dead?

Wall Street Journal
Boomtown
by Lee Gomes

Your 'Internet Time' Is Over, Time to Give 'Slowth' a Try

Here's an excuse in technology nostalgia: Remember Internet Time?

From its origins, circa 1994, the phrase became canonical during the late 1990s. It was used to describe the accelerated pace at which, in a Web-enabled world, all business was supposedly going to be conducted. Business plans, product cycles, big decisions -- everything would be zipping along at a fraction of their traditional rates.

This is your business brain on speed.

Internet Time, along with cousins like Web Time and Warp Speed, became handy phrases to throw into book titles and PowerPoint presentations as proof of savvy topicality. Into newspaper articles, too; The Wall Street Journal mentioned the idea four times in 1996 but 43 times in 2000.

This column, though, marks only the second time the phrase has been used by this newspaper all year. Internet Time's time was short indeed.

In fact, what with the current free fall in tech spending, Internet Time has been replaced by its evil twin: let's call it Slowth.

Faster product cycles? Why bother? No one is buying anything anyway; take all the time you need.

Like New Economy, the term Internet Time was used seriously by some people, mockingly by others. (Back then, you picked your friends by which camp they belonged to.)

People in the former category invariably mentioned it with a celebratory, even reverential, tone. It seems to have never occurred to them that companies were taking two years rather than six months to bring out a new product because that's how long it took to get the new product right.

One can't help but suspect that Internet Time was a convenient excuse for companies of the period to sell stuff not fully tested, if not downright shoddy.

Back then, though, who would dare complain? People would suspect you were operating with an Old Economy paradigm, a fatal accusation for any career circa 1997-1999.

In retrospect, Internet Time was actually an amalgam of several unrelated phenomenon. In a few cases, the simple existence of the Internet did, as billed, allow for faster products. If you are making software, for instance, your customers were suddenly able to download new versions as fast as you could put them on the Web.

But most of the time, Internet Time was something else. In the fight between Microsoft and Netscape, usually hailed as the ultimate Internet Time battle, it was the sudden emergence of a big market coming up for grabs that drove the frantic pace. There would have been the same sense of urgency had the pair been making the very first generation of patio furniture.

Mostly, Internet Time was just a euphemism for Bubble Time. Venture capitalists were approving business plans in a single breakfast meeting for the simple reason that they wanted to get in and get out before the roof fell in.

The phrase Internet Time is traditionally credited to Tom Paquin, one of the earliest employees of Netscape. As the story goes, Mr. Paquin, around the summer of 1994, was asking other Netscape employees how long they had been at the company -- and how long it felt they had been there.

A four-month tenure, people invariably said, seemed like a year, maybe two. "Ah," said Mr. Paquin, "Internet Time."

That's how the story usually gets told. But Mr. Paquin said last week there was more to it than that.

The phrase, he said, was initially something of an inside joke among Mr. Paquin and his buddies. (And it was used to describe time perception not, as in its current meaning, time compression.) "Then the marketing and PR people picked up on it," he said.

It may be hard to remember now, but back then, Netscape was at the very center of the technology world. It was, for one, going to put Microsoft out of business. Reporters, politicians, the whole world flocked through its doors, asking about its ways, its secrets.

"Internet Time," said Mr. Paquin, was something that Netscape marketers began offering as a window into the company and its new world. People ate it up.

It may have been one of the first instances of a tech company marketing a form of Internet Exceptionalism. That's the notion that the Internet is a wholly new place where none of the old rules apply. That idea, of course, became the central tenet of the subsequent Internet bubble, and eventually ended up costing a lot of people a lot of money.

Mr. Paquin still thinks that Internet Time is a meaningful notion in the confines of technology. But he says it's not, as boosters tried to claim, the new world order.

Says Mr. Paquin, "To say some guy in the chemical industry ought to be shipping new products every six months -- that's just crazy."


Posted by Jay Cross at November 4, 2002 12:02 AM | TrackBack
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