Robert Samuelson is right that Steve Case's deal combining AOL and Time Warner hasn't worked out in the short run and may not in the long run for a variety of reasons, some of which have nothing to do with him. But how can anyone say that Case's building AOL into the dominant Internet service provider was not a great entrepreneurial success ["The Internet Nanosecond," op-ed, Jan. 15]?

While Samuelson's observation about the lack of simplicity and reliability in the Internet is right on, he doesn't seem to recognize that the main culprit is the computer itself, especially the Windows operating system, and not the Internet. And he must surely realize that AOL's success is due, in large measure, to Case's insistence that AOL be user-friendly.

Samuelson's main complaints are that Internet innovation has foundered and that the Internet has been overhyped and overbuilt. He claims that while it offers many useful services, nobody would collapse if it went away tomorrow (in contrast to the automobile). This is a gross exaggeration.

Sure, the Internet has been overhyped and overbuilt. And it has been the victim of an economic downturn that those associated with it helped create.

But what Samuelson forgets is that the Internet has been available to the general public for barely 10 years. While technology can change radically in that time, people's ways do not. It takes time for us to become accustomed to using something new. The fact that in this short time so many businesses and households have built e-mail and the Web into their way of life is a mark of the Internet's success. While these businesses and households would not collapse if the Internet went away, they would be awfully unhappy. To call the Internet a failure is shortsighted in the extreme.

-- Irwin Lebow


In his Jan. 15 op-ed column, Robert J. Samuelson suggests that, at least in economic terms, the Internet is not especially important. Pointing to Steve Case's failures as chairman of AOL Time Warner, Samuelson says the Internet is a giant white elephant.

From a commercial standpoint, it's true that few people have had much success with the Internet. Many Internet services lose money, and freeloaders have indeed ripped off potential profits from other industries (i.e., e-mail is a substitute for snail mail and faxes; free downloaded music and CD burners are a drain on the music industry, etc.). But in focusing on the Internet's lack of short-term commercial success, Samuelson overlooks its more enduring economic promise. At the very least, the communication infrastructure that the Internet provides has revolutionized the speed and volume of information exchange. The productivity benefits are apparent but don't always translate into quarterly profits.

As an economist, I would say that Samuelson's argument could just as easily apply to the airline industry. Since deregulation, few companies have been able to sustain profitability. Ordinary travelers want simplicity and reliability. They want to travel inexpensively and without hassle. Does this mean that airlines have become a giant white elephant?

-- David Leishman