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What the Broadband Meltdown Tells Us

  |  December 13, 2001   |  Comments

Marketers can learn important lessons from the spectacular demise of Excite@Home.

The collapse of Excite@Home and the demise of so many other broadband companies provide evidence of a very simple truth: Currently not enough consumers are willing to pay for broadband to create a viable marketplace.

Broadband is great in theory but woeful in practice. It has been the subject of extraordinary evangelism and hype over the last 10 years. Those promoting broadband have talked glowingly of everything from virtual reality to video on demand to interactive games to businesses zipping around megabytes of data in seconds.

What the broadband industry and its promoters have signally failed to recognize is the cost of providing such broadband access at the existing level of demand. The basic reality is that it is currently too expensive to provide broadband. Broadband gives you a Rolls-Royce Internet. The vast majority of us cannot afford that.

From the broadband fiasco we can learn some very important lessons. First, fast is rarely cheaper and isn't always better. For much of the '90s, the technology industry and the media that fed off it behaved like they were taking vast quantities of heavy-duty, mind-expanding drugs. Everything was about speed. As we see today, when fast companies such as Excite@Home and Enron crash, they crash spectacularly.

The need for speed and change became an almost religious mantra among many technology pundits. Broadband was the only thing that mattered. In fact, many pushed to design broadband-friendly Web sites because they fervently believed that broadband was just around the corner.

The second lesson is to believe it only when you see it. The Web needs to be treated as what it is, not as what technologists and graphic designers feel it should be. People with this broadband mentality simply cannot accept that this revolutionary Web is in fact a boring old library -- a very, very big, boring old library.

With this broadband mentality, people skim across the surface of the Web, trying to make it all shiny, fancy, and hip. This has led to the development of millions of Web sites that suck. These Web sites try so hard to be glossy magazines or spectacular TV ads. They have failed miserably.

Study after study show that people who use the Web from every continent on this planet don't want flashy Web sites. They want functional Web sites, with pages that download quickly. They want Web sites that have comprehensive information that is well organized. They want effective search engines. They want quality support. They want purchase processes that are simple and robust.

None of these things -- the things that people really want from the Web -- require broadband. Those who have chased the broadband rainbow have failed to recognize the riches that can be gained from simply laid-out, well-organized Web sites.

These people belong to the Macromedia Flash generation. According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, "flash" is about creating "a vulgar ostentatious display." The Web is a digital library. Web site design should be taken away from flashy graphic designers; it should be snatched out of the hands of marketers and advertising executives whose brains whir with images from TV and glossy magazines.

A Web site that works requires people with librarian skills (information architects) who know how to organize content. It needs editors who can deliver the right content. It needs people who can write for the Web.

Web site design is about comprehensive content, great organization (metadata, classification, navigation, search), and a simple, clear, readable layout. You don't need broadband to accomplish any of these things.

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Gerry McGovern Gerry McGovern is a Web consultant and author. His most recent books are Content Critical and The Web Content Style Guide, published by Financial Times Prentice Hall.

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