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Reid, R.H. Architects of the Web: 1,000 days that built the future of business. New York, etc.: Wiley, 1997. xliv+370pp. ISBN: 0-471-17187-5 $27.95/19.99

I have to admit that I almost gave up on this book while reading the Introduction, which is written by one J. Neil Weintraut in what I think of as "soundbite" school of business writing. There were times when it had me spitting at the unjustified statements and wild exaggerations that proliferate. I actually left it alone for a month, so that I could return to the actual text unbiased by what I had been reading. If you do buy or borrow this book I strongly recommend that you leave the Introduction stricly alone and move on to one of the other chapters immediately!

The main content of the book consists of eight chapters chronicling the development of key Internet-related businesses and their founders (or, at least, main protagonists). Some are better known than others to the world at large: thus, Netscape and Marc Andreessen, Jerry Yang and Yahoo!, and Andrew Anker and HotWired, will be known to many. However, I must admit that I had not associated RealAudio with the firm Progressive Networks and the name Rob Glaser, and I/Pro and Ariel Poler meant nothing at all to me. Similarly, while I am a regular viewer of CNET's various pages on the Web, the name Halsey Minor had not previously impinged upon my consciousness.

The chapters are written in the magazine "profile of..." style: the beginning of Chapter 7 on HotWired is fairly typical:

The area south of downtown San Francisco's Market Street is a desolate place of warehouses, cyclone fencing, and broad, one-way boulevards. Converging interstates gouge its face with varicose strands of rumbling traffic. These turn First-thru-Eleventh streets and their more cleverly-named perpendiculars into a vast, gridded on-and-off ramp; a sprawling victim of muddleheaded planning, shot through with rogue left-only lanes that abduct the unwary, shunt them onto freeways, and then dump them, dazed, in Oakland...

A little of this kind of stuff goes a long way, but it seems to be the kind of thing that sells to stressed-out businessmen at airports: mind-candy that lets them think that they are still working, when what they want is something to send them off to sleep on the flight from LA to Chicago.

Of course, the chapters are not all padding: there are some interesting accounts of how things came to be, how various contributors to the development of electronic commerce got into the business and where they think it is going. For example: the origins of the name Yahoo! are amusingly chronicled; the importance of getting early into the market is well-portrayed in the story of I/PRO and its Web advertising audit business; and the possible ramifications of Web audio are explored in the story of RealAudio. In short, there is a good deal to keep that businessman awake on the trip to Chicago and, if he is in the acquisitions side of his company, perhaps some ideas on who to take over.

That, of course, is the $64,000 question (or, perhaps, given the time and the sector, the $64,000,000 question): how many of these businesses will be around in ten years time? Indeed, how many in five years? The profits from the Internet are slow in coming and, in spite of the hype, most Internet companies are either still losing money or are marginally in profit. Over the next five years many are likely to fail and others, that show signs of profitability, are likely to be taken over by big players in the computer or media industries. By then, this might be an interesting historical document and, paradoxically, possibly more interesting than it is today.

Prof. Tom Wilson