Industry experts are divided on whether 1998 will be the year the Internet grows up.
Hopes are high that the gap between hype and reality will narrow considerably but many analysts remain sceptical that the market is ready to mature yet.
In a study subtitled ?The Death of Hype? Forrester Research predicts that the Internet industry will undergo a rationalisation this year that will help close the gap between expectations of what the Net can offer mainstream users, and the reality.
Key to this process will be the uptake of electronic commerce, but watchers are sharply divided on whether 1998 will be the year that this takes off.
Gene Phifer from the Gartner Group is convinced that ecommerce is poised for a huge increase in business-to-business trading over the Internet.
But Carsten Henjdors from IDC expects the ecommerce boom to be limited to selling computer products. He argued: "It is too soon for most companies. Most companies are devoting their time and money to the millennium bug and conversion to EMU."
One feature of the maturing of the Net is likely to be greater investment in quality Web sites. The Forrester research estimates that content providers will focus even more effort and money on improving their sites. This would be good news for the currently estimated 15 million World Wide Web users in Europe and the 23 million predicted to use the Web by the end of the year.
Andy Greenman, an analyst at the Yankee Group, reckons: "People will simplify sites using more interactive graphics and real audio. There will also be more easy access sites-within-sites, creating huge advertising possibilities."
Phifer added: "Everybody will have separated the hype from the reality by the end of 1998 so content providers will have to make sites more user friendly to save people from the information overglut."
But, IDC's Hejndors argued: "I am not convinced that huge investments will be made in Web site design because most companies still see it as a one-way street: for advertising rather than selling and buying."
Forrester also forecasts that the main Internet industry players will change considerably, with Netscape and Microsoft improving their browsers and ISVs specialising in Internet tools consolidating.
Phifer agreed: "This year will see a shakeout of ISVs. There are a lot of small players, which can only last so long."
Yankee's Greenman added: "They will be reduced to a few big vendors except the niche markets." Most analysts view Microsoft and Netscape's tussle for the browser market with interest but many predict a tough year ahead for Netscape.
Greenman suspects that "Netscape will have difficulty setting up bundling deals with PC vendors because Microsoft still has such control over the minds of people."
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