Leading edge

When subsequent generations look for a word to describe the enlightened information age of the late 20th century, it may be "leading," especially if historians to come read the predominant literature of the industry—the press release.

"Leading" is probably the single most overused descriptor in the computer industry, more than "affordable," "easy to use," or "anti-trust." Out of 1,107 news releases I saved in 1997, 61 percent used "leading" to describe the company or product.

Some applications are hard to argue with. The Learning Company calls itself "a leading provider of educational software." America Online is "the world's leading Internet online service." Disney.com is "the leading family Web site."

But sometimes the distinction from competitors is tortuous or rests on a careful choice of words. Interactive Pictures calls its IPIX "the world's leading immersive photography technology," ignoring pioneering, and dominant, Apple QuickTime VR. 7th Level, which failed as a game company, has abruptly become the "leading supplier of custom integrated solutions and packaged technology solutions to a broad array of entertainment, consumer, and commercial customers." That's hard to dispute—or even understand. Information appliance wannabe Diba, sold last summer to Sun Microsystems, proudly trumpeted it was "a leading technology supplier for the Information Appliance industry." Never mind that's like claiming the Broncos are the leading professional football team in Denver.

A company can always lead if it narrows the path enough. Since 1994, Bellevue-based Asymetrix has gone from being the broad "leading provider of Windows-based tools and applications" to today's "leading provider of enterprise-wide online learning solutions."

"Leading" has become a lazy word that's easy to use, hard to define, and almost useless for consumers or press to use as a gauge for a company's true role in the industry. It joins similarly watered-down words and phrases in the Meaning-Challenged Hall of Fame, including packaged goods' "new and improved" (read: new cap color) and broadcasting's "no. 1 station" (read: among hunchbacked 12-year-old girls).

It's time to get the lead out. Companies that can't do a better job of figuring out what they excel in and communicating it may discover, with so many leading, there's no one left to follow them.

Netscape now?

Netscape's self-described "bold action" to give away copies of its Web browser would have been bolder if it had happened when it was originally announced. Netscape CEO Jim Barksdale declared last September at the Software Publishers Association conference that his company planned to distribute 100 million CD-ROMs with Navigator on them. Since then, Microsoft Internet Explorer has gained in market share, and Netscape has moaned about how the free IE browser cut into its profits. Perhaps theirs were all lost in the mail?

Annual retort

The newly renamed Washington Software Alliance has issued its 1997 Annual Report, 24 glossy, promotional pages missing only one thing—any detailed financial information. Instead of that annual-report staple, members get a pie chart and a bar chart showing total revenue and revenue sources, with no breakdown of where the dollars are actually spent. If WSA members use this as a model for their own financial reporting, it's no wonder so many start-ups fail.

Virtual vanity

If the future of publishing is on the Web, authors should watch their pockets. 1stBooks (www.1stbooks.com) promises to publish an aspiring writer's book without "most of the expenses that go into the cost of publishing a book" through an author-funded subsidy or vanity press. To have a book offered as a download on the Web site, writers pony up about $500 per title. 1stBooks also gets to keep 60 percent of the selling price—the amount an off-line publisher, which has to pay for printing, unsold copies, and advertising, typically gets. Virtual paper must be expensive.

Curious yellow

Looks like online phone directories are starting to dial for dollars. Market researcher Cowles/Simba Information has found that Internet yellow pages generated nearly $22 million in advertising revenues in 1997, up from a little less than $4 million a year earlier. The report "Internet Yellow Pages, 1998" projects the industry will reach $165 million in 2000. The biggest threat to current all-in-one online yellow pages: niche directories that focus on advertisers in key headings, such as autos, restaurants, and attorneys. Let your mouse do the walking.

Frank Catalano, a Seattle-area analyst for interactive multimedia and software companies, can be reached at catalano@catalanoconsulting.com.

Complete Byte Me archives are available at www.catalanoconsulting.com





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