The innocence of the early World Wide Web – Part One

I was cleaning out some (very) old files today and came across a few articles I’d saved back in 1995 when the World Wide Web was starting to gain public notice. It’s fascinating to read how exciting and new the web was then. So hopeful and upbeat.

Today, of course, we’re almost all connected to the global network all of the time – even our appliances and vehicles are de facto web devices. It’s worth remembering (or learning, if you weren’t there when it all started) that there was a lot of idealism surrounding what the internet might become in 1995. It would all be positive (“insanely great,” as Steve Jobs would have put it), making things better for everyone.

The internet has created incredible opportunities, no doubt. But there’s been a darker side to being connected, and frankly, the list of negative things about the web is pretty damn long. So it’s fun to look back at a much more innocent time.

Here’s an article by Laurie Flynn of The New York Times from July 17, 1995, looking at how companies started using the web to connect with customers. Flynn’s description of how the whole thing works is fun because online interactions are second nature now. And her observation that Federal Express (when was the last time you called it that?) customers had tracked 90,000 packages “in May alone,” while UPS’s customers had tracked an amazing 35,000 packages on their brand-new website in about two months! Both carriers provide data on multiple millions of packages every day today.

Companies Use Web Hoping to Save Millions

July 17, 1995
By Laurie Flynn

The Internet’s World Wide Web – that great repository of data – has yet to become that great market. But right now a number of innovative service-oriented companies are using the Web not to make money but to save some – and not nickels and dimes either, but possibly millions of dollars.

For companies ranging from overnight package deliverers to banks, the Web is the place to offer technology-savvy customers a new convenience: automated customer service. In the process, these companies are finding that a Web site is a lot cheaper than operating customer phone banks.

Federal Express Corp., for one, delivers more than two million overnight packages each day and at any given moment it has to track the status of a large number of them. Since last November, customers have been able to log onto the Federal Express home page on the Web. After calling up on a computer screen a package tracking form, a customer types in his or her bill tracking number. Within minutes, the Internet server, or search system, hooks up with the Federal Express computer in Memphis, Tenn., finds the information and sends back a status report on the package’s whereabouts.

In May alone, Federal Express customers tracked 90,000 packages through the Web site. Internet tracking has become one of the most cost-effective ways to track packages, said Robert Hamilton, manager of electronic commerce marketing for the company, whose headquarters are in Memphis. Hamilton declined to quantify the savings, saying only that they were “significant.”

Some expenses are involved in setting up a Web site – mostly software-designer fees and contracting with an Internet provider to make the physical connection to the network. But the cost of package tracking on the Web is minimal.

Federal Express has already cut tracing costs by having its big clients use software to link up with the Federal Express tracking computer. These customers remain connected through a private network, which Federal Express maintains.

According to Sally Davenport, a company spokeswoman, 60 percent of the package tracing is now done through automated means. The rest has to be handled by service representatives at the Federal Express call center in Memphis.

United Parcel Service has also begun to offer package tracing through the Internet. Since its Web site went up on May 19, customers have tracked 35,000 packages through it, said Steve Heit, network access development manager for UPS, which is based in Atlanta. Although the site wasn’t started to save money, Heit said, it clearly is less expensive than other tracking methods.

That businesses are using the Web to offer automated customer service is a sign that the Internet may finally be entering its second phase – going from being the world’s largest library of data to being a provider of crucial services. The third phase might come next year as companies begin to offer customers the use of the Internet for financial transactions.

Computer and software companies, of course, were the first to discover that the Web can help them save money and improve customer service. Customers can more easily get technical support and software revisions or corrections. For the companies, the Internet is a low-cost alternative to phone banks.

Hewlett-Packard Co. of Palo Alto, Calif., uses a Web site to distribute revisions to its Unix operating system and additions to its printer software collection. Andrew Ould, a Hewlett-Packard spokesman said the company expected “substantial” savings from the Web site.

Similarly, Apple Computer Inc. makes software updates available to customers through its Web home page. All that a user has to do is get to Apple’s Web site and click on highlighted text describing the particular software he or she wants to acquire. The computer, using the Internet’s file transfer program, issues a request to download the program.

“Customer service is the easiest payback model,” said Paul Callahan, an analyst with Forrester Research Inc., a market research company in Cambridge, Mass. “It doesn’t involve any financial transactions, which avoids the biggest pitfall of the Internet right now – security.”

Development of security measures is well underway, even though Callahan estimates that it will be another 18 months before the Internet is completely secure- that is, before there is a widely adopted procedure to prevent credit card numbers from being intercepted and used fraudulently. Nonetheless, some companies planning to do business on the Web say that a secure system will be in place as early as the end of this year.

Until the security mechanisms are in place, the banking industry is offering a limited form of customer service on the Web. Wells Fargo Bank of San Francisco gives customers Internet access to the transaction histories in their checking and savings accounts, as well as to their current balances.

For account information alone, the Wells Fargo site receives 10,000 hits each day from about 2,000 customers, who might otherwise have called a customer service representative to discuss their accounts.

Several financial institutions, including Chemical Bank, Bay Bank and the Bank of Boston already or plan to offer electronic banking services over fully secure, private networks. But so far only Wells Fargo offers Internet access.

Wells Fargo views its Web site as a warm-up act for the full-featured on-line services that customers will eventually demand. “We’re looking at it more as a growth opportunity,” said Gailyn Johnson, senior vice president for on-line financial services at Wells Fargo, “because we know the customer of the future is going to do their banking this way.”

Copyright 1995 The New York Times