IT is billed as the purveyor of movies galore and unlimited entertainment. But the information highway also has a serious side. Companies are finding that it is a great way to do business.
Pioneering firms have already moved onto Internet, the existing data highway.
``There's business being done on the Internet,'' says Jayne Levin, editor of the Internet Letter in Washington. ``Deals are being made.... It should make business a lot more efficient.''
Companies from the Fortune 100 to the local flower shop are finding myriad ways to use the huge electronic network.
Digital Equipment Corporation in Maynard, Mass., has hooked up one of its new computer systems to the Internet so potential buyers can try it out on-line. Eager to tap into the vast amounts of information available on Internet, Armonk, N.Y.-based IBM has gone on a crash course to connect every employee to the network. Researchers at General Electric's development center in Schenectady, N.Y., are already on-line and access thousands of scientific papers each day, says company spokeswoman Phyllis Piano. ``It has been a very good tool for those people working in information.''
Small firms go on-line
In the past few months, small companies have also begun coming on-line.
``A year ago ... I was hard-pressed to find one or two bookstores'' on the Internet, says Mary Cronin, head of Boston College libraries and author of ``Doing Business on the Internet.'' ``Now, that has increased dramatically.''
Not only are there bookstores like Computer Literacy Bookshops (Internet address: firstname.lastname@example.org) with on-line catalogs, but Grant's Flowers and Greenhouse in Ann Arbor, Mich., (branch-info @branch.com) has an Internet picture catalog of its flowers. Computer companies such as Farallon Computing Inc. in Emeryville, Calif., (ftp.farallon.com) have begun putting free trial versions of their software on the Internet.
``If in the next three years you are not on the Internet ... you are probably a very small local businessman,'' says Mark Gibbs, consultant and author of ``Navigating the Internet.'' ``Even a small local businessman in five years' time will expect to have an e-mail address.''
The potential for putting businesses on-line is creating a cottage industry of its own. This week, Mr. Gibbs began an 11-city tour in conjunction with the publication Network World, giving seminars on how to create an Internet business. At the end of this month, Susan Estrada, president of Aldea Communications in Carlsbad, Calif., will begin offering a free directory of Internet addresses. (Contact info @aldea.com for more information.)
Firms like the Internet because it reaches potential customers in a way that advertising does not. ``The Internet is the ultimate niche market,'' Gibbs says. ``You cannot only customize down to the individual unit, you can advertise to the individual consumer.''
In fact, it usually has to be done that way because Internet users do not like junk mail, even electronically. After the Los Angeles earthquake, a systems operator on the Internet posted doomsday messages to every on-line group he could find. The man got 20,000 messages from angry Internet users and promptly lost his job, Gibbs says.
Restrictions fall away
Although companies can send information along other routes, commercial traffic on a prominent Internet backbone - the NSFNet - is still forbidden. That should change at the end of this year, when the National Science Foundation turns over the administration of the backbone to commercial companies.
``I think most people have applauded [the move] because it does eliminate the last vestige of usage restrictions,'' says Tony Rutkowski, executive director of the Internet Society, which coordinates the network. The NSFNet's acceptable-use policy has had a chilling effect on business usage, he adds.
Commercial traffic is likely to skyrocket, experts predict. ``There's almost as many Internets outside the US as inside and they're growing more rapidly,'' Mr. Rutkowski says.
Already, 146 countries are at least connected to the Internet by electronic-mail; 71 are directly linked to a global Internet backbone. Last year, the US Internet grew 160 percent; outside the US, it grew 183 percent. If the trend continues, Rutkowski predicts that there will be more foreign than US Internet networks by November.
``It's going to free companies to recruit the best talent,'' no matter where in the world that talent lies, Ms. Cronin says. ``Something that's this powerful and becoming this pervasive ... is definitely going to have an impact.''