The Internet Gift Culture

To give is to receive … business.

In its infancy, the Internet was just a gaggle of guys working on an experiment. There was some DoD funding. There was some imaginative foresight. There was some never-before-considered technology. There was some beer.

Lest we discount the value of the beer, remember that these guys weren’t just creating a new technological wonder. They were laying down the foundation of an electronic culture. And many a civilization has depended on beer to smooth social interchange.

Due to the intellectual, scholarly nature of these men, the culture they created was one of camaraderie, esprit de corps and intimacy-all in the spirit of cooperation. Facing common problems and relying on the expertise of people they seldom talked to and never met, they established a digital ecosystem based on respect and honor. You respect my needs and answer my questions and I’ll honor my commitments and meet my deadlines. Heck, I’ll even throw in a couple of extras just to show off my expertise.

Of course, for there to be a network there must be more than one computer, so the first step was the offering of hardware by individual institutions to the multitude. Step two was software. Team members would create code and make it available to everyone to review, test, comment on and improve. Finally, the protocols had to be defined and codified. This wasn’t a formal committee sort of thing. In Vinton Cerf’s own words:

“In April 1969, Steve [Crocker] issued the very first Request For Comment. He observed that we were just graduate students at the time and so had no authority. So we had to find a way to document what we were doing without acting like we were imposing anything on anyone. He came up with the RFC methodology to say, “Please comment on this, and tell us what you think.” (info.isoc.org/guest/zakon/Internet/History/How_the_Internet_came_to_Be)
It was the need to work together, technically and politically, that mothered the Gift Culture. Dip into this database of meeting minutes of the Advisory Committee of CERN Users. Read how to establish your own Web server. It’s free. We want you to have it. We want to make the Internet a better place for everybody.

So what does this mean to those who would use the Internet for marketing? Plenty.

Perhaps Netscape will hold the record for the largest IPO in history. Approaching the $2 billion valuation mark in August of 1995, it provided a lesson for the rest of us. Give it away; set the standard; own the market. Even the mighty maw of Microsoft has had to play some serious catch up.

This lesson was offered up earlier by a little company called id Software. On Dec. 10, 1993, id released its much-anticipated game, DOOM. 3-D thrills and bloody spills were downloaded and floppy-swapped by some 15 million gamers. It was free. Want to get to level two? Just send $49.95 to id Software. Software heroin. A smashing success.

Baby You Can Drive My Car

In November 1992, Digital Equipment Corp., that darling of the minicomputer era, mis- starter in the Unix workstation era and also-ran of the PC era, came up with a new machine it called the Alpha. It wanted people to try it out. It offered a test drive.

For several years, you could telnet to one of DEC’s fastest, hottest new mega- processors and check it out. Even better, you could upload your own software, test it for compatibility and benchmark it for performance. DEC was putting itself on the line by putting its newest technology online. It stepped up to the plate and said, “Come one, come all.” It was a bit revolutionary.

Log on anonymously to a brand new computer and run your own software? A company that invited you into the control room and handed you the keys? Ballsy. And effective. Unfortunately, the Internet got a little too popular for old Uncle Sam’s comfort.

On Nov. 1, 1995, Digital pulled the plug. “Due to World Trade Agreements and U.S. Department of Commerce concerns, Digital cannot openly supply the latest technology available,” the company announced on its Web site (www.digital.com/info/alpha-demo.html) Was the commerce department afraid that some evil empire would steal the powerful Alpha technology and use it for evil instead of good? But DEC didn’t give up and it didn’t lay down. On Dec. 15, 1995, it introduced a service instead.

The AltaVista search engine is a database of all the Web sites its spider can find, coupled with an index and a query tool. Did we really need another Web site to help us find Web sites? What could DEC offer that would make a difference? Why should AltaVista be getting more than 14 million hits per day? And if it’s that popular, why isn’t DEC selling banner space?

Because Alta Vista is a gift. It’s DEC’s way of giving back to the Net. In the spirit of that first gaggle of guys who were trying to make this gizmo work, DEC has created a search tool for the masses. It is giving freely of its development time, its hardware and its customer service department to make the world a little better place to live.

And the tooth fairy and Santa Claus are buying me a winning Lottery ticket this afternoon.

Digital isn’t selling ad space because Alta Vista is itself an ad. It’s an ad for Alpha computers, and it’s a doozy. If you’re looking for something out there on the Web, AltaVista is a fast way to find it. Very fast. Of course, running your query engine in 6 GB of RAM across 10 processors is a great way to expedite a search, and that’s just one of five systems behindAltaVista. But as always with advertising, it’s the perception that counts.

“Jeepers Clem, that li’l ol’ Alpha sure do put on some speed.” “Yup, I reckon we oughta get us one o’ them for the dynamic multi-dimensional analysis of our consolidated enterprise data.” “Reckon so.”

Is this a successful marketing model for the Alpha? It certainly hasn’t hurt. In DEC’s third quarter of fiscal ’96, big Alpha systems sales were up 60 percent. And the company has moved into a whole new product line: DEC now has an AltaVista Software Products division.

Under the vision banner of “OnSite Computing,” DEC is offering AltaVista Search, AltaVista Mail, AltaVista Forum for conferencing, AltaVista Manager for applications and network connections inventory, AltaVista Firewall and AltaVista Tunnel security tools. This is not to say that DEC wouldn’t have gone into these businesses anyway, but with Alta Vista it discovered something that Sun Microsystems had already learned: Sometimes the child outshines the parent.

Scott McNealy, after finishing his usual round of Microsoft bashing at Comdex 1996, in Chicago, said that within a year Java had become a bigger brand name than Sun. DEC saw the writing on the wall and named its Internet software products division after something that had garnered significant, positive attention out on the Net. Smart move.

AltaVista often shows up in lists of surfers’ favorite search tools. It’s so popular that Yahoo forsook its venture-capital cousin Infoseek for AltaVista. And, yes, I use it myself, all the time. It’s fast. It’s easy. It has no commercials!

[Note: In the never ending absurdity that is the Internet, DEC has recently decided (in December, 1996) to accept ads- thus blowing my entire thesis. Whose ad are they featuring January, ’97, anyway? IBM! Go figure.]

Give Until It Stops Hurting

So what have you got that might be of interest to the Internet at large? What software might you give away for free or service might you offer gratis? What back-room development project might be brought out into the light, have its name changed from Oak to Java and be dressed up for the ball? What new product line are you launching that could use a boost from a precursory foray into the land of the free and the home of the brave?

Dig deep and give. Give until people perceive you as engaging in a Net-centric act of selflessness. Then sell ’em the movie rights, the t-shirts, the action figures and the baseball caps. They’ll buy. And you will have done something positive for the Internet.

In the meantime, don’t discount the importance of beer to the wired population. At last count, AltaVista says the Web and newsgroup count for “beer” is 458,534, and there are about 120,000 documents containing the word “beer.” Make that 120,001.

If you can find a way to give away beer on the Internet, the world will beat a path to your server.