The new Net boom
It may look like 1999, but this time it's for real, and users, rather than investment bankers, stand to benefit.
NEW YORK (FORTUNE) - Investors, entrepreneurs and people across the tech industry are partying like its 1999, but this time the music isn't likely to stop.
It's a boom, not a bubble. We are in the midst of an extraordinary flowering of creativity and invention in technology, centered around the Internet. And unlike the last time, when the party came to an ugly halt in early 2000, this time the inventions are mostly going into the market and helping people build profitable, sustainable businesses.
I just spent several days at Esther Dyson's PC Forum conference in San Diego. The halls were buzzing as executives from hundreds of mostly-small companies schmoozed with venture capitalists, press, and others. The sessions were packed the whole time, and the energy was palpable.
Yesterday an article on CNET quoted science fiction author Bruce Sterling, long one of the industry's most prescient and subtle-minded observers, telling a group of techies at a conference in Austin that "This is the hottest period of invention since the invention of the browser." He pointed to two sites -- Flickr, the photo-sharing service bought last year by Yahoo, and Wikipedia, the user-generated online encyclopedia. Neither of them, he noted, "is a copy of anything else."
What's happening is fundamentally new. There is a unifying theme to many of the most exciting new technology companies, and the most interesting features and new products emerging from existing companies -- they celebrate and reinforce the power of the individual. That's why PC Forum's title this year was "Users In Charge."
Two tracks of this trend are most evident -- social networking companies that leverage the power of online friends helping friends (in Flickr's case for the sharing and discovery of photographs), and user-generated media operations like Wikipedia. In both types of companies, those who might once have been called "consumers" now in some way possess the power of producers. What's making it all possible is the way the Internet has leveled the playing field.
Even some big companies, notably Yahoo (Research), are latching on to the importance of the social networking trend (as I wrote about in this column last week). At PC Forum, Jeff Weiner, Yahoo's senior vice president for search, said he thought that increasingly what he called "knowledge search" would be integrated with the type of Web search we conduct today, which he called "information search."
In the new world he sees coming, you will ask not only computers but also real people what they know. Yahoo sees its future largely in helping to create that people-to-people nexus, Weiner made clear.
An interesting startup at PC Forum called Spot Runner takes user-generated media into a surprising new forum -- TV ads. Customers can get access via its Web site to television ad inventory, much of it on local cable. These spots, which in the pre-Web era often remained unsold, can cost as little as $50, so even the smallest business can buy them. Spotrunner even offers pre-produced templates of TV ads in thousands of different business categories. A small business owner simply drops in his or her own information and airs the ad.
Another new business at PC Forum that exemplified today's entrepreneurial creativity is Zillow, created by Rich Barton. His track record is good -- he earlier founded Expedia. Zillow aims to bring transparency to real estate listings with a national database of market-value estimates for, so far, about 70 percent of the homes in the U.S. It brings together tax assessments, previous-sale data, building specs, and information about comparable sales. Much of this data has been technically available to individuals in the past, but to get access to it would have been difficult. Real estate agents, for the most part, are not fans. Individual homeowners and shoppers are.
These companies are resolutely focused on finding profit quickly. When they achieve success this time, they are often not launching an initial public offering but instead, like Flickr, selling themselves to a bigger companies. So there are fewer tiny-but-promising public companies absorbing naive money from net-enthralled investors.
That's all for the better. This is a real industry boom, not a Wall Street-hyped investment bubble. This time, we all have the opportunity to benefit from the boom, not by investing in the new companies' stocks, but rather by simply using their products. That's likely to have an even more profound impact, both on the economy and on how we all live.
Fast Forward is a weekly column by David Kirkpatrick of FORTUNE magazine. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Join David Kirkpatrick Monday, March 20, in a free live teleconference on "Managing Outsourcing in a Global Knowledge Economy." That's Monday March 20 at 10 a.m. EST. On the call, he will be joined by Shashi Tharoor, Under Secretary-General of the United Nations; Soumitra Dutta, Professor of Business and Technology and Dean for Executive Education at INSEAD (Paris); Bruno Lanvin, Lead Advisor, E-strategies, The World Bank; and others. For more information and to register, go here.