louis martin
cns news & features

San Francisco, California--

The lights are low, there are palm trees on stage in the ballroom of the Moscone Center, and there is upbeat music that would carry you to new levels of hype. But the executive, whom all have been waiting to hear, turns out rather plain--no tie, no gold chain either. He is Jim Barksdale, president and CEO of Netscape Communications, a company lavished with attention over the last year.

He is surprisingly down-to-earth. What do customers really want, he asks. On the Internet it's not as exotic as first thought.

According Barksdale, it's more like access to the company's human resources data.

"Everybody kind of makes fun of things like 'human resources,' but think about it: Human Resources is one of those databases that everybody in the company wants to touch." If you're on the benefit plan, you want to know what it is, said Barksdale.

It is the more mundane company data that may offer the biggest growth to the future of the Internet--or rather, the Intranet as it is called when access is restricted to inside the company.

This was the Internet theme of DB/Expo 96 in San Francisco this week.

Along with an "Internet Village," database companies involved in "data warehousing" were on display. Database technology, though lacking the current glamour of the Internet, is a huge business that is beginning to get hooked up with the Internet and web browsers.

Databases are like deposits of raw resources. They become valuable when there is a practical way to tap them. When they can be tapped with industry standard products, they become even more valuable.

Another example Barksdale gave was customer service and support. "Why make it hard for my customers to get hold of me?" he asked. Why make it hard for customers to get answers to questions, he went on to ask, when questions can be answered through a web site.

In fact a number of companies are already answering most customer questions through web sites. Hewlett-Packard is one. Not only does the company offer product information on its site, but it allows customers to download software, such as device drivers for its printer products.

But Barksdale went further than that; he suggested that sales and even financial information can be placed on a searchable internal web site. "If you think about it, a spread sheet is nothing but a collection of cells, each of which can be its own universal resource locator or URL." Thus he claimed that financial information is highly suitable to point-and-click technology.

Likewise sales information, likewise engineering and R&D, likewise any other type of company information.

What has made these applications possible is open standards on the Internet. Virtually every major vendor of Internet products has welcomed them and agreed to them, he said. Java, the object-oriented programming language that turns static pages into dynamic ones, is an example. The standard for frames is another.

And what has made the Internet really take off, he said, is "ubiquity, economy, and utility." Netscape has had nothing to do with the first two. But the Netscape browser has made it possible to access resources, or to make them useful. Thus use of the Internet has changed. From 1994 to 1995 email-only use went from 73% to 34%--meaning that people are using it for much more than just sending messages.

To listen to Barksdale, the future of the Internet is in the more mundane Intranet.

But maybe that is because he was speaking at a database conference. With the lights low and another theme topic, the Internet future might have soared like a full moon over a tropical island.



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