More than a little whingeing, some friendly jabs and a largely positive view of the future, as more than 100 attendees found out during an afternoon of panel discussions at the Rewind Fast Forward panel in Melbourne.
Organised by Slattery IT Consulting and hosted by law firm Minter Ellison, the forum brought together 23 Internet entrepreneurs and observers including David Spence, co-founder of OzEmail, Australia's first major commercial ISP; David Gold, who founded online retailer dstore.com.au and now runs wireless provider Azure; Rob Fitzpatrick, CEO of successful retailer Wishlist Holdings; Ramin Marzbani, CEO of Infrastructure Resource Management; eBay ANZ managing director Simon Smith; and a range of younger new media and telecommunications entrepreneurs.
All were keen to wax lyrical about the trials and tribulations of the last decade, with Martin Hosking, a co-founder of once-explosive search engine LookSmart and now director of Jellicon, offering a bittersweet assessment. "I'm in a state of almost unrelieved gloom, verging on despair," he quipped, referring to the missed opportunity for his baby, search engine LookSmart, to build a successful global brand despite once being capitalised in the billions of dollars.
"Australian venture capital is dead," Hosking explained, "and I can't think of a truly successful Australian [online] company from Internet 1.0 that succeeded on a global basis. However, my despair is not total: the tyranny of distance is receding, and Australia is positioned where it can succeed as the engine of the local economy in Southeast Asia."
Marzbani was quick to argue that things aren't as bad as Hocking had made them out to be: "we're not alone," he joked. "We're up there with countries like Ghana, Turkey and Burkina Faso. [The problem was that] the Internet was probably the only time in history where you could raise capital from the public markets for a business model. You can't just have a business model, but it's amazing how many people in Internet 2.0 are still putting on the same spiel."
Asked whether the climate of intense innovation could ever produce the same result again, David Gibbs, CEO of online home loan broker eChoice, confessed that the company's early struggle for a sustainable business model had been far riskier than he would like to repeat.
"We could have taken the business down a more traditional path, but we spent time consulting on innovations we took," he explained. "Many of those innovations came from the realisation that if we didn't solve this problem by the end of the week, our VC partners would pull the plug and we would miss payroll the next Wednesday. That meant we learned all about how to handle customers -- blow them away with customer service -- but we now would never take the business risk of that."
Many panellists argued that the government's spotty legislative history on issues such as datacasting and innovation funding had created turbulent conditions for the growth of online content. "Yahoo pushed out 2 million video and radio streams in August, and [Telstra BigPond] pushed out 800,000 sport video clips in one month," said AIMIA president Sandra Davey. "Imagine if content streaming had been locked under the datacasting regime; we would have been buggered."
Australian Internet Industry Association CEO Peter Coroneos -- who spends much of his time talking with government legislators on behalf of the industry -- offered a frank explanation for the coalition's erratic history of IT-related legislation: "they probably just didn't think it [the Internet explosion] was real," he said.
Asked to project the current trends into the future, panellists were optimistic about the potential for wireless technologies to help maintain an alternative to Telstra's local loop, which will be increasingly marginalised by the carrier's newly-announced strategy to build - and restrict outside access to -- its new fibre-based network. Content producers were keen on the opportunities presented by business models such as micropayments and new revenue streams from sales of back-catalogue music that can't physically be accommodated in stores.
"There's a bit of a perfect storm happening, as applications come to fruition, there's enough broadband to make them work, and the blossoming of wireless and so on in the market create new opportunities," said Maha Krishnapillai, group executive for Carrier & Corporate Affairs with Macquarie Telecom. "There's a real deepening of engagement going on between businesses and customers, partly because things like broadband enable things to get done."
Even as panellists wrapped up their discussions and attendees headed off for drinks, one thing was clear: a decade into the Web as we know it, it's been a long, strange trip. Looking into the future, it's clear we can expect more of the same.