I received many interesting user comments on my April Alertbox on the globalization of the Web.
The New York Times Turns Away Overseas Users
Robin Stevens from the U.K. writes:
I've been following your Alertbox columns for some time, and have found them most interesting. However, I'm afraid that there is a slight problem in the latest one (mildly ironic given the topic). The link to an article on the " New York Times " requires that you be registered with them, which is fine for US residents, but for non-US residents they require you to hand over credit card details - something I'm not prepared to do. Thus to read the article in question one has to lie on the registration form and pretend to live in the US.
Gilles Desjardins from Canada writes:
In your last Alertbox , while discussing international usability problems, you provide a link to the New York Times . This is an interesting case by itself, since the New York Times on the Web is free for all users connecting within the United States, but costs 35$US a month, when connecting from elsewhere. That is quite a fee for something that does not cost anything more to deliver in any country.
I have been selling goods on the Web and I have been buying goods too. One thing I resent is seeing companies charge large extra amounts to ship outside US, including Canada, as if it was on the other side of the world. But charging extra for something that does not cost anything more to deliver... that's just insulting .
To make things worse, the New York Times Web site does not include any email address for people like me to tell their point of view (or vent their anger). That makes a very very poor international site.
Jakob's comments: Several other users sent me similar complaints about my link to a New York Times article. It is indeed bad to lock out users from other countries. It would be much better to use a micropayment scheme to charge all readers the same fee (say, 2 cents per article) no matter where they reside.
Even American users often complain about links to the New York Times because they get unpleasantly surprised by being dumped at a registration screen when they try to follow a link. The Web is in dire danger of being transformed into a set of medieval fortresses, each behind its own moat, that do not support easy linking.
News: On July 14, 1998, The New York Times eliminated the special subscription fee for overseas users. Bravo. Maybe the discussion here had a little to do with this decision, but I am sure that it was mainly made for business reasons: In the two and a half year since the Times opened its website, they had gathered 4 million registered users in the U.S. (where it has always been free to register) and only 10,000 paying subscribers from the rest of the world. Pretty clear that the subscriptions were not working.
Regionalized, But Unified, Search
Lloyd Wood writes:
The problem with search engines is that their interfaces differ considerably; as the web increasingly fragments you'll need to go to and use geographically-separate and content-diverse search engines to find the information you're looking for. (Examples of this include Altavista Canada, with the strongest 'local' content focus of all Altavista 'mirrors', and the regionalisation of Yahoos.)
However, all of these engines have dramatically different interfaces; learning thirty or so different search engine interfaces is a Bad Thing .
Since I was spending a lot of time using multiple search engines, I built my own standard interface to them all: http://www.ee.surrey.ac.uk/Personal/L.Wood/spacesearch/ (with the standard in-the-website form illustrated nicely at the bottom of: http://www.ee.surrey.ac.uk/CCSR/ ).
Backend Outsourcing: It's Happening
Alex S. Brown (browna@g a r d e n.net) comments on my claim that "In the future, dealing in stocks will be almost purely a content business since the physical trades can be outsourced to a fulfillment house":
This is actually going on today , and has gone on for years in brokerage. I have been in brokerage for about 5 years now, and it has struck me that many of the new "benefits" of the web have existed for many, many years in the brokerage world. There are "self-clearing" brokers , who actually process their own trades through their own back-office systems and procedures, and "correspondent" brokers, who process their trades through a larger, self-clearing broker-dealer. There is no way to tell the difference between these two businesses, as a customer ; they appear exactly the same. E-trade, one of the big Internet broker-dealers, recently went from being a correspondent to self-clearing, as a way to reduce costs. These types of relationships, however, are not new to brokerage; they have been going on for 20 years or more.
I recently attended a conference on how new businesses will create " virtual product offerings ", by consolidating multiple companies' offerings, or by putting a better user interface on complex products, using the Web to tie together the servicing and delivery of product. Boutique brokerage firms have done this for years, using many electronic interfaces to receive product information and to deliver product, but catering to a specialized customer.
In many ways, brokerage today is a good model for what other businesses will be like in the future. Brokerage has always been an information-based service; the Web will accelerate some trends for brokerage, but it will radically change other industries that have less electronic infrastructure.
The Ocrat Webmaster also comments on my outsourcing ideas:
I agree, but you could probably go much further.
Just about any purchase or transaction could be handled through myriads of customized front-end websites with only a few giant worldwide players handling back-end order fulfillment. Stock transactions are perhaps a bit unique in that no product needs to be delivered to the customer, but the concept is still applicable to other goods and services.
The big fulfillment houses ( Amazon is becoming one) may play a role very similar to portals and search engines, while the boutique "product information broker" role will be played by ordinary websites.
Looking up books by subject in Amazon is like entering a keyword into a search engine: too many choices! Just as a specialized link station can cut through search-engine clutter and provide full descriptions of a limited set of quality links, a specialized boutique web site can provide recommendations on, say, which Chinese dictionary to buy out of the dozens available on Amazon.
These two roles (link referrals and purchase referrals) may merge in the future, as affiliate programs become more widespread. Turnkey software packages are coming out for managing such programs (eg, http://www.befree.com/ , which Barnes & Noble uses). Amazon pioneered here, but lots of other companies are piling in, for books, film and videos, music, magazine subscriptions, toys, personals ads, art works, etc.
Almost any website that provides information can provide an opportunity to buy something, credibly integrated into its content: a home-renovation website that tells you how to carry out a do-it-yourself project can give you an on-the-spot opportunity to buy the tools you'll need. A cookbook site can provide purchase links for hard-to-find exotic ingredients right on the recipe page. Movie and music reviews pages can let you rent the movie or buy the CD on the spot.
For websites, commission revenues and referral fees may become a more important source of income than the ever-elusive banner ads. And retail operations, no matter how large, will get squeezed out unless they can transform themselves into "content companies" tailored to very specific audiences. Wholesalers and distributors will consolidate and will do retail sales. Just as the line between search engines like Yahoo and portal sites like AOL has blurred as the former have added chat, free home pages and e-mail, both of these will further blur and merge with online product catalogs.
Some examples of associate programs:
and the list goes on. The Refer-It site list a number of other programs available to websites, and Mark Welch's banner ad page includes a page on referral programs .
- film and video purchase/rental, http://www.reel.com/ , http://www.netflix.com/
- music CDs, http://www.cdnow.com/ , http://www.musicblvd.com/
- magazine subscriptions, http://www.enews.com/ , http://www.magmall.com/
- personals ads, http://www.one-and-only.com/
- art works, http://www.artuframe.com/
Many of these referral programs are admittedly fairly new and shaky and lacking in credibility or brand name recognition.
Books are a particularly interesting field. The visible rivalry is between Amazon and Barnes & Noble, but two obscure players are owned by giants:
Books.Com belongs to Cendant (formerly CUC International, a huge but low-profile "price club" style operation with no physical inventory,
Bookserve.Com belongs, I believe, to Ingram, a giant nationwide wholesale distributor of books and other products. At least, the "whois" information for Speedserve.Com (parent of Bookserve.Com) and Ingram.Com shows them based in the same small city (LaVergne, Tennessee). At one time I think their phone numbers and contact names were also similar, but this is no longer true (or perhaps my memory is playing tricks on me).
So Amazon.Com can't survive as a retail bookstore alone. They are moving more into book distribution, stocking inventories, as their Amazon Advantage program for small publishers competes directly with the Ingram Express program.
Jakob's comments: True that backend outsourcing is happening more and more. In fact, just the day after I posted this comments page, Amazon.com announced that they were improving their referral program. Now, if you follow a link from my site to Amazon (like the one in this paragraph; hint, hint :-), they will pay a small referral fee for any book you buy during that visit.