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Book Review: Of Dotcoms & Ecommerce

The book mostly focuses on the US, where most of the Internet development took place under well-intentioned, though somewhat bumbling policy makers, writes Parveen Mittal

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The internet has become so critical to our lives that it is difficult to imagine that just a couple of decades ago it was limited to a few research labs. There is already a lot of literature written on the history of the Internet that mostly focuses on the role of certain individuals in its growth and the rise of new business models. But Shane Greenstein in his book How the Internet Became Commercial does a great job of mining data to highlight people, policies and decisions that influenced the evolution of the Internet and how it eventually became integral to business decisions.

The book mostly focuses on the US, where most of the Internet development took place under well-intentioned, though somewhat bumbling policy makers. Similar developments were also taking place in other parts of the world. One can now better appreciate the impact of the Indian government-funded Education and Research Network (ERNET). I vividly remember the joy of accessing Bulletin Boards and e-mailing text at 2-3 kbps at midnight from the ‘Cyberlab’ of IIT Mumbai in 1991. My career, like that of million others, since then, has revolved around the Internet — as a user, as an enterprise data mining product seller and now as a co-founder of a niche interest-based social network.

You will also know why the dotcom boom went bust and early unicorns like Webvan.com, Pets.com, Worldcom and JDS Uniphase had to file for bankruptcy soon after dazzling the people, banks and regulators alike. The author calls it “Internet Exceptionalism’ — a pervasive belief that the Internet is somehow different and does not have to follow the basic rules of economics.

India was also not left untouched by the ‘irrational exuberance’— as Alan Greenspan famously termed this phenomenon — with a number of dotcoms like Hometrade.com crashing soon after enjoying heady valuations. However, the aftermath of dotcom was not all gloom, as the experience ‘reoriented participants and investors’ to adopt a more grounded view making the Internet one of the biggest drivers of productivity and commerce in the last two decades.

The author then goes on to explain the Netscape-Microsoft browser wars, evolution of Google and wireless access standards. However, where this book really excels, and is almost guaranteed to become a reference for future researchers, is in delineating how the Internet, originally perceived to be a tool for military and eggheads, became one of the most fundamental business forces, unleashing a new age of entrepreneurs and impacting almost every enterprise, big or small.

This book is a must for students and purveyors on the Internet. You will be disappointed if you are expecting an easy read. (For instance: “...work processes, organisation routines and market relationships were reconstructed to take advantage of new potential and new opportunities”.) However if you are interested in the dotcom boom; or how the Internet evolved to create new business models and inspired scores of new age entrepreneurs, this book will not disappoint you.

Mittal is co-founder, Affimity


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