What do you get when you put some of the
Australian Internet industry's most battle-hardened entrepreneurs
in a room and ask them to reminisce about the 10 years since the
World Wide Web hit the world?
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
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,"
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
"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
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.