Dotcom survivors to see real profit at last

Dotcom survivors to see real profit at last

David Teather: New York Correspondant for The Guardian

 It is finally starting to happen.

When the young guns of the internet gold rush felt like showing off (and, boy, did they like showing off), they often spoke of "internet time". For those with short memories, or who are simply in denial that the late 1990s ever happened, "internet time" was an expression of the speed with which an idea could go from concept to raising millions to going online and subsequently to going bust,  all within a matter of months.

Using that same measure, the surviving new media firms have been out of favour for what feels like an eternity. But in recent weeks there have been some signs that things might be starting to change for the better.

While the US remains mired in the perfect storm of an already ailing economy, terrorism and now the Enron
collapse, shares in a small number of internet companies have been steadily rising.

Since September, when all else has been heading south, Expedia, the online travel agency has doubled in value from $20 (£14) to $40 (£28) a share. The online auction service, eBay has gone from $40 (£28) to $70 (£49) over the same timeframe. That's not to say that Wall Street always gets it right - far from it - but the reassessment seems to suggest that the internet is suddenly worth a second look.

Ebay is a resounding example of new media coming good and also of its growing maturity. The online service has 37 million customers worldwide and this year is expected to make very real profits of $129m (£91.2m) on sales of $740m (£523.3m). The business sold $25m (£17.7m) of collectables alone - those cutesy china dolls/thimbles that thrive in the pages of certain Sunday newspaper magazines.

It is even run by a very un-dotcom boss. Ebay's chief executive, Meg Whitman, works in a typical open-plan
Silicon Valley office, but has a classical marketing background, trained as a brand manager at Procter & Gamble. shares haven't enjoyed the same level of renewed interest. But probably the clearest landmark of recent weeks was the announcement that the self-styled largest bookstore in the world, had also finally shifted into profit.

Cynics argued that the modest profit of $5m (£3.5m) for the fourth quarter last year was not about growing sales but cutting costs. It is undeniable that Amazon's sales growth of 13% during the year was somewhat below the 20% to 30% it had been aiming at. But the cynics miss the point.

Amazon has also started to operate like a proper
company - no longer sacrificing profit for the sake of Jeff Bezos' mantra of getting big quick. It is looking for efficiencies and at making real money in a world that latterly demands some  substance.

What is happening is what most sensible commentators always said would happen, even during the mania of the late 1990s when every man and his dog was getting funding for a website. A few quality brands are beginning to emerge from the ashes of all those who crashed and burned.

The same kind of ridiculous claims about the potential of the internet thrown about in the goldrush are not about to reappear, but at least there is the concession that online companies can actually work. It is a start.

Proponents of the internet now have that awkward issue to face, like New Labour, of when to drop the "new media" tag and simply join the rest of us.


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