The sudden growth of advertising on the Internet's World Wide Web was making veteran hacker and Net surfer James Howard cranky. So the 23-year-old drama student from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill decided to do something about it: Together with three fellow students, he developed a software program that could strip out the ads.
The fruits of their labor, dubbed Internet Fast Forward, was launched on the Web last month--and a wave of fear has begun rippling through the mob of marketers hoping to make their fortunes in the new medium.
"We just didn't like the time it took to download advertisements, while we were paying for the time online," Howard said on his cellular phone from Washington last week, where he testified at a Federal Trade Commission hearing on privacy and marketing to children on the Internet.
Howard has been a computer hacker since he was 10 and on the Internet since he was 14. Now he's chief executive of PrivNet Inc., the private company set up to market the IFF program. His partners are Gene Hoffman, a 20-year-old UNC communications major; Jeff Harrell, a 22-year-old English major; and Mark Elrod, a 22-year-old computer science major.
IFF allows users to block advertisements, blinking text, Web graphics and "cookies"--Web software that tracks a visitor's movements through a Web site. The IFF device, which works as a "plug-in" to Netscape's browser, can also circumvent the lucrative advertising sites that direct surfers to popular "search engines" such as Yahoo and Infoseek.
Howard said his gripe is not with advertising per se, but with the time it takes to view a page with advertising. "It can take 4 to 6 seconds to download each ad, and if you are on the Web a lot, that really gets annoying," he said. "If the advertisers want to pay for a high-speed Net connection to my house, then I would take the ads, but right now it is costing me money to look at their ads."
Although many Web marketers initially dismissed IFF as a college prank, it is now causing a stir in the industry.
"There is no way to know if it will catch fire or not, there are so many scenarios," said Paul Sagan, editor of new media at Time Inc., which runs the giant Pathfinder site.
Sagan contends that Web advertising is not a problem for the 15 million Americans currently online. "The current ad model [on the Web] is non-intrusive and users understand there is an implicit bargain that ads come with free content," Sagan said. "They accept that deal in television, where they tolerate commercials, and it's the same with the Web."
There's a lot riding on whether he's right. Although Web advertising will total a mere $80 million in 1996, according to Bill Bass, a senior analyst at Forrester Research, it is expected to explode to $4.8 billion by 2000. A technology that enabled people to easily avoid ads could significantly slow that growth.
Bass thinks IFF will be a niche product. "It's a download, so you have already limited the number of people who get it because it is a pain in the rear to go to the site and download it."
And several analysts say technology to allow personalized Web advertising will soon make Web ads less intrusive.
Still, IFF software could be attractive for a lot of Web surfers who are fed up with waiting for interminable Web page downloads. The beta version of the IFF software went up on PrivNet's site (http://www.privnet.com) in May and can be downloaded for free. By summer's end, the full release version will be available for between $10 and $15.
Although IFF was developed to increase Web performance, the PrivNet people do have some gripes with commercials on the Web. Sites that really irk PrivNet are relegated to the "Advertising Hall of Shame" page on the PrivNet site. The page, which flags sites with heavy ad content, currently includes Playboy Online, c/net, suck, Pepsimax, Ziff Davis Interactive and Pathfinder.
Howard and his colleagues also see room for kids to be exploited by Web advertising and marketing. "It's just like Saturday morning television, where they stack all the children's shows and try to sell them sugar-coated cereal--the Internet is following the same model," he said.
The "hundreds of thousands" of dollars used to develop IFF came from Howard's "back pocket," he said, specifically from playing the stock market with a $50,000 trust fund.
PrivNet is in this to make money, but they do seem to have the industry in perspective. So will we see PrivNet launch an initial public offering and become a stock market darling like Netscape?
"That won't happen" Howard said. "It seems like the way to make millions off the Internet, but it is not immediate, actual money, it's just Monopoly money."
Freelance writer Louise McElvogue can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
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Advertising in Cyberspace
Online advertising, which accounts for only a small part of the total $125-billion U.S. advertising market, is expected to continue its explosive growth into the next millennium. Online advertising estimates, in millions of dollars:
Year Online ad spending 1995 $80 1996 343 1997 1,100 1998 2,200 1999 3,600 2000 5,000
Sources: Jupiter Communications, Reuters