Interactive Broadband: Fantasy Vs. Reality

Give consumers lightning speed and a persistent connection, and they'll discover a killer app.

In June 1997, I was asked to help hammer out a content deal between my then-employer, The New York Times, and a startup that had recently unveiled a high-speed Internet network over cable television lines. About 15 minutes into the first meeting, I felt like Alice falling down the rabbit hole. Things were not what they seemed—and, sadly, little about consumer broadband has changed since then.

The startup was @Home, and the oddest thing about the meeting was that of the people in the room—three from @Home, two from The Times—I was the only one who subscribed to the service.

Because Comcast, an early investor in @Home, had recently laid fiber near my home in New Jersey, my neighborhood was among the first in the nation to get the service. As for @Home employees, by the time the company went bankrupt last fall, most still couldnt get the service in their Silicon Valley homes.

At that meeting, there was a huge disconnect between the ambitious business plan laid out by the @Home folks and the things I valued most about their product as a customer. I didnt need a killer app to sell me on the value of broadband. The things I wanted were the qualities I had come to relish at work: high-speed access to the Net and an always-on connection.

But what @Home was determined to sell consumers was content and not just standard Web content delivered at lightning speeds but rich, streaming multimedia and a complete online service with chat rooms, forums, and national and local news—you name it. A supercharged AOL.

It was a conceit that only got worse when Kleiner, Perkins, Caufield & Byers failed to get the price it wanted for the Excite portal and forced the ill-conceived merger that became [email protected] The company squandered a fortune creating content nobody wanted. Ask the millions of Excite[email protected] subscribers what they think of the service and they rave, but most switched their home page to Yahoo or their employers Web site within days of being hooked up and never looked at [email protected] pages again.

Im reminded of that disconnect whenever I hear someone insist that residential broadband will never take off until a killer app comes along. That was nonsense back in 1997, and its nonsense today. Give consumers lightning speed and a persistent connection, and theyll discover a killer app.

Besides, the first true broadband killer app was Napster, and the panic it created among bandwidth providers demonstrated that the disconnect between marketing fantasies and consumer values hasnt narrowed.

Why dont they get it? Let me know at [email protected]