On Tuesday evening, Robert Cailliau, co-inventor of the Web, gave a talk at Dynamic Earth about the growth of the Internet and the Web, during which he compared the Internet to the world’s transportation network. Roads represent the physical cables that connect the world together, the rules of the road (e.g. drive on the left) are the protocols that form the Internet itself, and the traffic that travels along the roads are the protocols that make the Internet useful: E-mail, Bittorrent and of course, the Web. His description is a very good one, though there is one distinction I think it is important to make: there is a big difference between the convoy of trucks used to transport goods throughout this network, and what makes those goods valuable.
There is a modern tendency to speak about “web apps” and “web-based startups”, which may have made sense in the early days of the web (when instead they were referred to as “.coms”), but given its current ubiquity it is about as useful as describing BP as a shipping company. Transportation is certainly necessary to bring their product to their customer, but to describe them in those terms misses the vast sums of money they invest into searching for new oil fields, leasing large tracts of the middle east and developing new drilling and processing technology. So it is probably better to sum up Google, Twitter and Amazon as “search companies” that happen to use the web as an interface to their core technology, in the same way that the BBC, the Guardian and the Times are “news companies” that now use the Internet to provide access to their content.
So when you think about modern technology entrepreneurship, try to forget the hype and remember that while the web is a fantastic interface technology, that is all it is. What keeps your customers coming back is the value they find in your core technology, not your drop shadows and AJAX. Instead of thinking about “web companies” try instead to figure out what the business really does, and speak about it in those terms instead. If we had done this during the .com bubble, perhaps we would have seen through the irrational exuberance sooner. The Web is simply an interface, a gateway, a portal; it is what it leads to that matters.