Ted Landau's User Friendly View - The Internet: Serial Killer?

May 30th, 2007

I probably spend more time online each day than any other single activity. True, this is partly because my job requires that I keep up with various online news sources. But even when I am off the clock, I am on the Web: from finding out who makes the best pizza to finding directions to get there; from buying a book to booking a hotel, from checking movie reviews to reviewing my stock portfolio. It is hard to imagine how life was before the Web, when I actually had to leave my house to do most of what I now easily do right from my desk.

The Internet has also been the source of an incredible array of economic opportunity: from careers that didn't exist 15 years ago (Web development and design) to corporations that owe their existence to the Web (starting with Google and moving down to smaller stars such as The Mac Observer). Heck, the Internet even helped save the Mac. Back in the late 1990's, the Mac was teetering on the edge of extinction. As email and the Web became the primary forces driving sales of home computers, reasons to prefer a PC instead of a Mac began to evaporate. You could surf the Web equally well from either platform. The Mac rebounded.

While we can applaud all that the Internet has wrought, it has its dark side. The Internet is also a serial killer (or perhaps mass murderer is a more appropriate metaphor). It has destroyed an assortment of competing technologies and businesses, industries that thrived prior to the arrival of ubiquitous email and the Web.

The other day I was in a book store and noticed Leonard Maltin's Movie Guide. I used to buy a new edition of this book almost every year. Not so anymore. Why? Because of the Web. With free Web sites such IMDB and Rotten Tomatoes, why should I depend on a book that requires that I shell out more than twenty books every year to keep it up-to-date? I suspect my logic is echoed by many other potential buyers, with the result being a significant decline in sales of Maltin's book.

This same logic can be generally applied to a wide variety of other reference material, from many computer books to maps to encyclopedias. Indeed, printed versions of encyclopedias, once a staple in the homes of middle class America, have virtually vanished from the landscape. As for maps, sites such as MapQuest or Google Maps have all but eliminated the need for printed road atlases. It has completely abolished the market for road atlases on CD, a phenomenon that was briefly popular several years ago. The increasing presence of GPS devices has further eroded the map market.

The Web is similarly destroying many of the retail stores where people go to buy those books that are still selling. Here in the Bay Area, we have a great independent book store called Cody's. Last year, its original store on Telegraph Avenue in Berkeley closed. This year, its San Francisco outlet closed, leaving only one branch alive. Another excellent local book store, Black Oak Books, is in danger of a similar fate. There are multiple contributing causes here, including competition from big box stores such as Borders and Barnes & Noble, but there is no doubt that online sales, from sites such as Amazon.com, have been a major factor.

This shifting landscape has forced fundamental changes in that other bricks-and-mortar bastion for books -- the library. Increasingly, libraries are retooling to focus on providing free access to online services, such as specialized search engines and databases, that would otherwise require a fee. Actual books are being pushed into the corners and back rooms. This is especially so in university libraries, where the focus is on research material.

Circulation of daily newspapers continues to decline. The major paper in the Bay Area, the San Francisco Chronicle, fell 2.9% in just the last six months. As with book stores, multiple factors are behind this decline. However, the shift to getting news online is certainly a factor, especially among younger readers who can't recall when news was not available on the Web. At least equally culpable are sites such as craigslist.com and realtor.com, which offer free alternatives to the classified ads that were once a cash cow for newspapers. While most papers have a Web version, these sites typically do not generate enough revenue to compensate for the decline in sales of their print versions.

Probably the best-known victim of the Internet is the music CD. The availability of music online, both legal and illegal, has precipitated such a huge decline in CD sales that many people predict these discs will all but disappear over the next few years. This in turn has led to the demise of many of the retail music stores that depend on CD sales. Here in the Bay Area, Tower Records is one such corpse. With the rise of movie downloads, there is a fear that the DVD (at least the non-HD DVD) is next in line for decline and eventual demise. Anything that increases movie viewing at home is also a threat to the existence of movie theaters, whose ticket sales are barely treading water in recent years.

The ability to download or watch television episodes online is similarly shaking up the TV industry. I recently read that Nielsen ratings for Lost are down this year. What this overlooks is that Lost is one of the most watched shows by people who watch it at a time other than when it is first broadcast -- such as by downloading it from iTunes, viewing it on the ABC Web site, or simply recording it to a DVR. This means that Lost's true "rating" is significantly higher than its Nielsen number (which only tracks the initial broadcast audience). Eventually (and I predict this will happen by next year), ratings will be modified to include alternative viewing methods.

Time-shifting, in turn, is having a big ripple effect on the advertising industry. Alternative modes of viewing either do not include the broadcast commercials or allow the viewer to skip past them. To compensate, advertisers are scrambling to find new ways to make sure you see their ads (such as embedding ads in the show itself). How this all shakes out remains to be seen.

Finally, there is e-mail. Its popularity has precipitated a decline in the use of the Post Office's services for any sort of personal message. I expect that online greeting cards (such as Apple's iCards) have had a similar negative impact on the sales of traditional greeting cards.

You get the idea. In most cases, people do not mourn the passing of these victims of the Internet, any more than a prior generation mourned the loss of the horse-and-buggy at the hands of the automobile. On balance, for our society as a whole, the Internet's benefits have far outweighed its costs. So we welcome the change. Still, while we revel in the glories of the Internet, perhaps we should at least pause for a moment of silence in honor of those who have perished in its wake.

Ted Landau is the founder of MacFixit, and the author of Mac OS X Help Line, Tiger Edition and other Mac help books.

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