links for 2009-02-27

The Internet you didn’t know

Jurassic Web in Slate, subtitle: “The Internet of 1996 is almost unrecognizable compared with what we have today.”

What did people do online back when Slate launched? After plunging into the Internet Archive and talking to several people who were watching the Web closely back then, I’ve got an answer: not very much.

To which I say: bullshit.

The World Wide Web was an invigorating, compelling and, frankly, amazing place in 1996. Innovations were fast, furious and quickly adopted. Clever people did clever things and pretty much everyone noticed, because “everyone” was a rather small and curious community.

I know. I was there. Not “watching,” like the folks Slate’s reporter Farhad Manjoo spoke to, but creating. Designing. Exploring. Sharing. And, pretty much daily, blown away.

The Internet of 1996 was certainly nothing like today’s experience. But to suggest there wasn’t much to do is to ignore everything that was being done.

There was no iTunes; but there were MP3s, and .wav files, and sharing was just as exciting (and covert). There was no glut of information, not yet; but there were unbelievably good reads and finds, large and small, like Suck and HotWired and 0sil8. Tools for online creation were primitive, but that didn’t stop people like me from hand-coding HTML and slicing together animated GIFs frame by frame and putting amazing works online.

No Yahoo Mail? So what? I was sending email with Eudora over high-speed connections back in 1991. And I first used instant messaging in 1992, on an old Mac running OS 7, when young Farhad was still in middle school. Which is not to be a grumpy old man, but to make the point he misses: the Internet wasn’t hamstrung back then. It was just different.

I dare say 1996 was, in certain ways, more interesting online than 2009. The Web was still the great unknown. People didn’t know what to make of it, but they knew it was radical and fascinating. It was the future, happening in real time.

Today the Internet is a mature medium that has become more sophisticated almost non-stop since the early days of its commercialization. But to call its initial era boring is to miss the real story. The Internet has never been boring. Those of us who were there in 1996, shaping what so many people now consider normal, know the truth.

Tropicana and branding

I have been complaining in this space for several months about the awful redesign of Tropicana’s packaging. It screamed change for change’s sake, and truly felt designed without regard for brand strength or visibility.
Old and new Tropicana cartonsWho at Pepsi possibly thought 12-point sans-serif product descriptions were better than the large, color-coordinated pulp and acidity indicators? Or that a sea of orange juice was more eye-catching and unique than fruit with straws? Or that Tropicana’s logo just had to be updated? The new stuff was pretty, sure, but entirely generic and unusable.
Tropicana wisely backtracked this weekend and is reverting to its old packaging. The company cited consumer feedback as the driver, which is nice to see. But its spin completely missed the point.
“We underestimated the deep emotional bond,” said Tropicana’s president, Neil Campbell. “What we didn’t get was the passion this very loyal small group of consumers have.”
This is false. As a loyal Tropicana buyer, I don’t love the straw-punctured fruit or the old logo at all. What I love is Tropicana juice. And the new packaging made it hard for me to buy it. My preference was hidden in small type; the cartons no longer differentiated on the shelves. It took me longer to shop, and twice this winter I went home with the wrong juice. I’m glad they’re reverting but not for the reasons they see (or admit).
One thing hasn’t changed, though: Tropicana Pure Premium is great orange juice. Thank goodness they didn’t mess with that.

GM and Chrysler deserve nothing

Here’s the thing about the latest auto industry bailout pleas: only under extreme duress are General Motors and Chrysler are making changes to their business plans. And only under the guise of getting more cash are they coming up with them.

I don’t want to see large-scale industrial failure any more than the next guy. But these companies do not deserve Federal assistance. They have proven for decades that their businesses are myopic and wholly resistant to change. While the rest of the world’s automakers adapted and excelled, Detroit was relying on focus groups, creating redundant models, ignoring macroeconomic and environmental trends, and overpaying employees.

The net result is companies that need overhauls and closures. Market forces should create the necessary change. Another $14 billion will only continue the status quo, which is akin to giving a drug addict just a bit more of his drugs in the hope he’ll figure out how to get clean if he’s given just a little more time. It won’t work.

GM in particular has busted its model by overdoing just about everything, starting with a proliferation of models. Take a look at model lineups in 1959, during its heyday:

  • Chevrolet: 8 including trucks (Bel Air, Biscayne, Impala, Corvette, Kingswood, El Camino, Suburban, Parkwood)
  • Pontiac: 3 (Bonneville, Catalina, star Chief)
  • Buick: 2 (Electra, Invicta)
  • Cadillac: 3 (DeVille, Eldorado, Fleetwood)

That’s 16 car models in total across their four major brands. Today Chevy has 15 models, Pontiac 7, Cadillac 6 and Buick 3–a total of 31 car lines, nearly twice as many models for less than half the market share. And that’s excluding Saturn and GMC, which heavily rebrand GM platforms for even more product lines. You’d think over the past, say, 15 years GM would realize it’s doing things wrong and try some fresh tactics. None ever came.

So add me to the list of “let ’em fail” naysayers. I’d like to see Detroit’s stalwarts continue to make cars, but only compelling concepts with strong identities that would actually have me consider buying one.

The potential ripple effects are frightening, but more bailout money will only delay the inevitable. Better to swallow hard and work on a Plan B.