August 8, 1996, was a red-letter day for the Internet, but this time it was faces that were red. Cyberspace made the front page of The New York Times not because of what the wired world offered but because of what it didn’t: For 19 hours, America Online went down — merely the latest in a series of brownouts, black-outs, and flameouts that have had the press proclaiming the end of the Internet as we know it.
Welcome to The Future of Entertainment, Chapter 2, in which clearheaded doubt replaces naive faith, Internet stock offerings no longer ricochet off the canyons of Wall Street, and Barnumesque hyperbole begins to shade into coherent discussion. More to the point, it’s apparent that we will not know what this medium is and how it will entwine itself into our daily lives for at least 10 years. The following pages, our guide to the hippest, hottest, and most overhyped of interactivity, reveal both disappointments (enhanced CDs) and reasons to cheer (the growing sound and vision of the World Wide Web).
A thought to ponder: Invented in the early ’20s, TV wasn’t established commercially until two decades later, and it became something more than radio with pictures only in the mid-’50s. The Net was invented in 1973 and took off in 1994. As an info resource, it’s a godsend. As an entertainment medium, it’s, well, TV at a crawl, or a magazine you can’t take to the beach, or a movie screen the size of a poker chip. And a computer is more demanding than the boob tube. ”People ask me if The East Village is the ‘Uncle Miltie’ that will get people to buy computers,” says Charles Stuart Platkin, cocreator of the popular Web soap opera. ”Even if it were, TV was a purchase-and-plug item.”
Why has the online audience continued to grow beyond Pranksters and Sandra Bullock Minutiae Junkies? (These and other bolded topics refer to separate stories in this special section.) According to a recent study by research firm Yankelovich Partners, ”The principal drivers of usage are novelty and curiosity…. As the novelty wears off, so does usage.” The online audience grew 50 percent from May 1995 to May 1996 — by which point 21.5 percent of U.S. adults were peering into cyberspace — but that growth is a steep drop from the previous year, during which the audience doubled. The average time spent online has dropped too, from 16 hours a month to 12. At commercial services like AOL, the ”churn rate” — the pace at which subscribers quit the service and are replaced by new ones — approaches 20 percent.
More disturbingly, the Yankelovich study points out that more than half of all ”cybercitizens” access the brave new world via comparatively slow 14.4 modems. More than 40 percent still use 9,600 or slower modems, akin to cruising a freeway on a bicycle. So much for those corporate websites boasting byte-rich graphics, animated Shockwave, and jolts of Java (for definitions of these and other terms, consult the glossary), all of which can seem to take an eternity to appear on your screen. ”People have to recognize where the mainstream is,” says Paul Grand, chairman of NetCount, a firm that is trying to become the Nielsen of cyberspace. ”If it’s a really snazzy site, but nobody ever sees it because the content takes too long to load, give it an award for content and design, but not for function.” As one of its services, NetCount tallies ”abandoned downloads”: Web pages that take so long to show up on screen that surfers give up and move on. The rate can be as high as 80 percent for portions of some sites.