Freeserve, as everyone knows, fired the first salvo of free
internet access in September of last year. Like the Fosbury flop, once
one had done it, everyone else had to do the same. So all the other
internet service providers followed suit.
The latest development for the ISPs is cheap phone calls. The next thing
will be free phone calls. So there is no real possibility of any
technical, price or service difference between most of the ISPs. The
access itself becomes a commodity, so the difference is in the
What confuses the matter further is that, irrespective of which ISP
provides your internet access, you can visit any ISP’s site, and see all
the content anyway.
What ISPs have also relied on is people not knowing that they can change
the default home page, so there’s a kind of forced loyalty to their
content and eyeballs are automatically captured.
What the mass-market ISPs are trying to do is reach large audiences,
keep them and encourage them to buy through the site’s e-commerce
They’ve struck the content deals to provide information services and
commerce in every category imaginable. Hence the development of such
products as financial services.
Eyeballs, loyalty, transactions: once you have enough of these you
probably qualify as a portal. It’s interesting to note that both America
Online and LineOne’s users view on average 200 pages on the service per
month, while Freeserve’s users average only 50 pages. In web language,
it’s called ’stickiness’. Yuck. But there are simply not enough people
in this market, or enough web advertising, to support lots of ISPs.
Virgin Net has the usual selection of content and links to shopping
sites and also includes a focus on leisure, with links to live radio
sites all over the world, and other broadcast and entertainment sites.
Ic24 is the Mirror Group’s offering, which contains a myriad of sport,
news and entertainment-based content.
Waitrose links in with its online ordering service. It’s not really a
mass-market ISP but instead caters for a select audience. Food and drink
are the predominant themes with a lot of in-depth discussion on recipes,
ingredients and wine. There’s a page on Waitrose’s wine experts, as well
as a link to Country Life online and sites about golf, which I should
imagine is appropriate for their audience.
It’s some time since I’ve seen the Netscape logo. The AOL-owned Netscape
Online is a result of AOL’s need to launch its own free ISP, while
leaving the paid-for AOL UK service intact. It is clearly aimed at a
younger audience, with prominently displayed buttons saying sport, ’win
two grand’, computer games and chat rooms.
Freeserve’s offering has a lot of content so it can be specialists in
everything, but some of the areas need attention. Babyworld is the only
major specialist site for that market but looks a bit, er, 1997. I
suppose Freeserve will continue to expand its content to accommodate
other audiences, but maybe at the cost of making the home page even more
crowded than it already is.
Community areas are highly developed on all services apart from
Waitrose, but in reality, they consist mainly of chat areas where people
type in capital letters things like ’How old are you?’
The trouble is that, with the exception of Waitrose, these ISPs are
jacks of all trades and masters of none. The new vertical portals or
softals (ie content targeted around a particular theme or audience such
as children, women or music) appear to be the way forward. Vertical
portals will offer comprehensive content and relevant commerce for their
audience without the home page becoming excessively crowded.
These new sites will really benefit from the potential for building
communities on the web, because these people will actually have
something in common.
Their audiences will not necessarily be mass, but they will be
Being early to market is important, so they can attract e-commerce,
sponsorship and advertising partners.