By Leslie Walker
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, December 10, 1998; Page B01
I love Internet dreams, all those wonderful ways we imagine the global computer network will improve our lives.
Internet telephones were going to let us talk for hours for free to friends all over the world, while "push" news services would customize the information we need and pipe it to our desktops. Well, the last Internet phone I tested dropped a few words from every other sentence. And my desktop delivery service still swamps me with unwanted missives.
Now I've been trying out another Big Idea, what Webheads call "intelligent shopping agents." These software robots are designed to act as personal shopping assistants, supposedly scouring the World Wide Web and bringing back the lowest prices.
Visionaries said the "bots" would harness what makes the Internet great -- an almost limitless supply of information -- and use it to empower consumers. Retailing as we know it would be wiped out. The lowest-cost producer would be the only one standing after the swarm of the bots swept through.
Of course, it hasn't happened. Someone forgot to ask the retailers and manufacturers about this new world of perfect consumer information. As for-profit corporations, they weren't too keen on fighting a nuclear price war. Now that they are getting hip to the Net, the .coms have come out swinging against the bots.
At first, some merchants electronically blocked the bots from their Web sites. But as bot developers were devising ways to sneak in, a funny thing happened. Rather than fight them, some of the smart retailers started buying up the bot companies. The goal: to develop more sophisticated shopping agents that can help their owners create Internet superstores.
It remains to be seen how consumers will fare as the bots are retrained, but the tale underscores never-ending tensions among groups vying for economic control of the Net.
Expect more battles like this one as big corporations seek a bottom to the financial sinkholes of cyberspace. Companies are willing to lose millions now so they can be in position (they hope) to earn profits later.
Some companies are counting on the bots to help them win by giving you a more convenient shopping experience, one where bots find that sweater in just the right color at a bargain price, or notify you when 42nd Street Photo drops its price on that Nikon you've been eyeing.
That dream is why Amazon.com, the online bookstore, bought Junglee Corp. and its bot technology and why Excite, a Web guide company, snapped up one called Jango. Infoseek took home Quando, and Inktomi Corp. bought one of the best -- C2B Technologies. America Online Inc., meanwhile, bought PersonaLogic, a different kind of bot that assists consumers in making decisions.
Total cost of the year's bot binge? More than $300 million.
The early bots were pretty simple: They compared price and not much else. But they've evolved to be able to scoop up other information that consumers value, such as shipping fees, product availability and reviews.
It's never been clear how bots would make money. Junglee devised one widely copied strategy: charging merchants a listing fee and a percentage of each sale referred by a bot. Many merchants, of course, didn't join. Consumer groups weren't happy either: They thought the deals would taint the bots' results.
Now companies are refining notions of how widely their bots should travel. MySimon.com, one of the few remaining independent bots, roams far, without collecting merchant fees, and boasts that it searches almost 900 sites. With Yahoo, in contrast, an initial search covers just the electronic stores that are located on Yahoo's site. Successive searches bring in stores of fee-paying partners, then go out to the broader Web.
The new owners continue to enhance the bots, adding features they think will draw consumer interest. In deciding what changes to make, they are harnessing the Web's record-keeping and interactive nature. The companies don't only monitor consumers' buying patterns more closely than they could in traditional stores; they can also collect feedback.
Amazon.com, for instance, is a big believer in talking directly to customers. When it debuted a trial "Shop the Web" service with 50 participating merchants this week, it posted a prominent feedback request and declared, "You're the real shopper here. We're counting on you to tell us what you want from our shopping service."
So don't afraid to try the bots, even if their behavior is still unpredictable. Your clicking patterns will help educate them. And with every search you conduct, and every purchase you make, you give consumers a stronger voice in the emerging world of cyber-commerce.
© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company