column for July 1994 issue of Internet World.

Stone Soup

By Christopher Locke

You probably know the story. A peddler comes into a village one day and says, "I can make delicious soup using only this stone -- all I need is a big pot, some water and a fire." Everyone in town comes out into the public square to scoff. Gradually, they are captivated by this fool and his rock. Why not give him what he asks for, they think -- this could be entertaining. Having set up the pot under his fire, he drops his magic stone into the boiling water, saying, "This soup will be delicious, but a pinch of salt would improve it tremendously." Willing to bend the rules to this minor extent, someone inevitably goes off to fetch some salt. By the same tactic, a little pepper is added, then a handful of herbs, a few carrots, several potatoes, perhaps a turnip or two.

Meanwhile, the kids are turning somersaults in the village commons, the dogs are all barking, and a festive atmosphere is infecting the crowd. Everybody's chatting and gossiping and wondering how anyone could be dumb enough to think he could make soup from a stone. The concoction by this time is beginning to smell pretty good, and our peddler is saying, "You know, this soup will be taste wonderful exactly as it is, but a few chunks of meat would make it really excellent!"

Of course, I am that peddler and MecklerWeb will be the soup when it's finally served up. I think it will, in fact, be as delicious as advertised. If you don't believe me, just hang around the pot a little longer. And by the way, you wouldn't happen to have any interesting content, would you?

If you've missed my last few columns here, this tale will make little sense. Let me back up a bit. MecklerWeb is an idea that has turned into an initiative, and -- soon we hope -- will become a working system. It's purpose is to help institutions, professional associations and business organizations to get up and running on the global Internet. My column here last month described to some degree what MecklerWeb will look like, once implemented, and how it will operate. This month I thought I'd share something of the process of putting the framework together. This process, not unlike making stone soup, has been a major learning experience in itself, and has taken the MecklerWeb team behind the scenes and into the innermost recesses of the Internet's existing infrastructure.

The original motivation to construct MecklerWeb came from my brief sojourn as editor of another Internet publication. Business people called me in droves, asking how they could get their companies "on the net" effectively. And I found I had no easy answers. In fact, the more I thought about it, the more difficult and daunting the challenges seemed. There ought to be some place these companies could call, I thought, where someone could quote them a fixed price (perhaps with additional options), and be able to say, "We can have you up and running in front of live Internet markets in three to four weeks. Just sign here."

But from where I sat, I could see no such service that would be considered credible to the Fortune 1000, say, or to the thousands of other, smaller companies that pretty clearly were beginning to investigate the net's potential. So I began to think -- always a dangerous activity.

And I thought that no single company seemed in a position to bring about such an outcome. There were bits and pieces of the overall requirements scattered here and there: a handful of companies capable of providing connectivity, for instance; a few with world-class resource discovery tools; more with specific information content, in many cases cleverly packaged and ready for delivery. Beyond that, I saw hundreds of professional associations in the "real world" outside the boundaries of the Internet, all of which had gathered vast quantities of valuable information to benefit their memberships. And further out still, I saw thousands of companies with plenty to say but no channel through which to express their accumulated knowledge of customer problems, innovative techniques for dealing with same, or informed concerns about industry issues. Mass-market advertising does not constitute such a channel; it was never designed to support substantive communication of this type.

So, with this emerging model in mind, I foolishly stepped into the public square a few months back and began to boldly hawk my Internet equivalent of stone soup. Knowing that converting information into the Hypertext Markup Language (HTML) required by the World Wide Web is not yet something most MIS departments are prepared for, we went to Passage Systems and arranged with them to handle all necessary conversion. As Passage will charge customers -- though at a preferential rate -- this part was easy, once we had determined that they were a natural ally.

On a far more challenging front, we approached AlterNet (a.k.a. UUNET) in Falls Church, Virginia, and told them we could pull this off if we just had the pipes to run it on. AlterNet, to their eternal credit has since agreed to provide the Internet connectivity MecklerWeb will require -- and that's no trivial ante into the stew pot, believe me. We are proud to have landed a partner that, to our minds after much investigation, represents best-of-breed among the major Internet access providers.

Then we went to WAIS, Inc., the folks who have crafted one of the best resource discovery tools on the Internet today. The Wide Area Information Server system (which is what WAIS stands for) consists of network publishing tools that incorporate highly sophisticated automated indexing technology. Both the company and their technology promise to help people make better sense of the net's vast information stores. The WAIS information retrieval technology is a natural complement to the information browsing orientation of the World Wide Web; search and hypertext are far more valuable in combination than either by itself.

John Durhing at WAIS immediately grasped our plans and has been an enthusiastic supporter from our first conversations. As a result of many such talks, WAIS has agreed to provide MecklerWeb with the commercial implementation of its WAIS server. The company is also working with Dow Jones and Encyclopedia Britannica to deliver some very interesting content indeed, and we are hopeful that synergistic business relationships will naturally emerge between these WAIS customers and MecklerWeb.

The pieces were beginning to fall into place. However, AlterNet's offer was, of course, contingent on a place their proffered T1 line would terminate. We didn't think our shop in Westport, CT, was a good choice for several reasons, the largest of which was that we didn't see the MecklerWeb idea really working unless it entailed a distributed effort among many collaborating partners. In addition to the problem of where to put our server, there was one other little outstanding detail: to be precise, what server?

The term server has two meanings here. One is the World Wide Web software we'll need to make the contents of MecklerWeb available to the world at large. This is no big problem, as the system is freely available. There are, however, commercial Web server implementations in the works. One of special interest is being developed at Enterprise Integration Technologies, the outfit working on CommerceNet for the Smart Valley project in California. EIT has become a core technology partner and has agreed to provide its Web server for use in MecklerWeb. Among its other strengths, the EIT server will enable robust encryption and authentication, thus enabling direct monetary transactions over the net.

The other meaning of server is the physical computer this software must run on. Think of this requirement as the stew beef. On this front, we talked to a couple of large computer manufacturers about our needs. While both could smell the aroma of the soup as well as the rest of the crowd around the pot, one basically said: "But hey, it's got no meat in it!" And we replied: "Yeah, but think how good it'll taste to all these folks if you just throw us a bone!"

Granted, it was a pretty meaty bone we were asking for. We need enough computing power to launch the largest commercial Web server yet envisioned, whose contents will be available at no charge to anyone on the planet connected to the Internet. We expect to take a lot of hits on this machine, eventually a bank of them cross-linked to handle the enormous traffic when the soup is ready to serve up.

The other company we approached didn't waste time asking for endless assurances. They instantly locked onto the MecklerWeb plans and how these would complement its own. Literally within days of our initial discussion, Russ Jones of Digital Equipment Corporation called back to say that DEC would provide MecklerWeb with an Alpha system fully capable of handling the conceivable load, and would cover our substantial disk requirements as well.

We initially went to DEC because it appeared to us they had a well thought out corporate strategy with respect to the Internet. After their lightning-fast reaction to our proposal, we needed no further proof. In addition to the hardware they will supply to the project itself, DEC also brings world-class capabilities to satisfy many of our clients' likely hardware and system integration needs. Among its many credits in this area, DEC has developed a reputation for constructing highly effective security firewalls for organizations in both public and private sectors. To say we are ecstatic about this partnership verges on understatement.

That leaves the content of the system. On this front, the work has hardly been work at all. Many organizations have come directly to us, having heard about MecklerWeb via the net or by word of mouth -- and, in many cases, from reading our recent remarks in Fortune, Forbes ASAP and The New York Times.

Educom, a consortium of 600 colleges and universities has agreed to serve as the hub of our education domain. Along with Educom, we have invited that organization's hundred-or-so corporate sponsors to take an initial position on the system. We hope many will "graduate" to become paying sponsors, but we want to help them get their feet wet at first by offering a few pages of presence without charge.

Remember, we're working on the old chicken-egg problem here: how do you draw an audience to something like this without first having content? And how do you get that content without first being able to guarantee an audience? The solution, as with much else on the Internet, is that you lead with something for nothing. The soup is free and will remain so. But remember also, that the companies that make the soup's ingredients will be offering additional products or services for sale once you and I and hundreds of thousands -- potentially millions -- of others have gotten a taste of the culinary results we're proving are possible in this grand experiment.

Hosting our legal domain hub will be Cornell Law School's Legal Information Institute. Thomas Bruce -- who was not only instrumental in building LII's terrific Web server, but who has also written a very capable Windows-based Web client called Cello -- has been an enthusiastic supporter of the MecklerWeb concept from its inception. In addition to an extremely well organized collection of legal sources, including such unsuspected gems as the NASDAQ Financial Executives Journal, LII brings the sort of professional expertise that will characterize all the topic domains in MecklerWeb.

SeniorNet will also be joining us to expand and enrich their wonderful work. This association links its retirement-age members worldwide and helps them stay informed on a wide range of issues and actively engaged in as many interests. Though this is a relatively small group with only 15,000 members at present, we are excited about their participation. SeniorNet is a true virtual community and we hope their experience will help to foster many more on MecklerWeb.

I'm running out of space here, so the rest of this will have to be more rapid-fire name dropping -- which should not be taken to suggest that we're any less proud of our other partners. Bill Washburn, executive director of the Commercial Internet eXchange (CIX), has been a long-time backer of the idea we're attempting to bring to life in MecklerWeb. In gratitude for his generous moral support, and in recognition of the value of the information content, we are providing the 30-plus CIX member organizations with free initial presence on the system.

American Cybercasting has agreed to provide us some portion of USA Today. Richard Rahn of the Ball Corporation is working to develop a domain area for APICS, the American Production and Inventory Control Society. Jay Machado, who writes the e-newsletter Bits & Bytes Online will share his gleanings from press and net, as well as his always-interesting perspective on the latest techno-developments. Demand Research will give us a database containing officer and contact information on thousands of American companies, and the Reference Press, publishers of the Hoover's Handbooks, will provide their full-text profiles of the same organizations, as well as their write-ups of thousands more international firms and emerging businesses. Individual Inc., which captures stories daily from over 300 electronic sources will provide a daily news feed about the Internet and related "information highway" developments.

Fast Company, an exciting new business magazine recently launched by several former editors of Harvard Business Review will share some of its content with our audience, as will GlasNews, an innovative East-West journal linking Western and Russian interests. In a similar vein, we will offer content from Inside Multimedia, the premiere UK-based newsletter on the latest developments in that sphere.

Among the many other companies that have expressed strong interest in taking a position on MecklerWeb are EDS, Interleaf, The Maloff Company, NetManage, Spry and SunSoft. A far greater number have contacted us for information about what we're doing and how they might participate.

On a final note, one company we're actively working with is Ogilvy & Mather Direct, a major force in the advertising world, and a household word among Fortune 500 firms. This particular group has been involved in online advertising for better than ten years, yet immediately grasped our very different approach to corporate presence on the Internet. We're gratified to have them engaged in this initiative, and we're looking forward to what they can offer our corporate clients. We've heard too many times about the clunky, arcane interfaces the Internet is so maligned for, and we think Ogilvy will blow minds bigtime when it demonstrates what it is possible to accomplish today in the context of the World Wide Web.

However crazy the idea may have initially sounded -- even to ourselves -- MecklerWeb appears to be coming together rapidly. Whatever we're doing, it seems to be working better than we dared imagine at the outset. We suspect it's not that we're particularly smart -- though we hate to admit it -- but rather, that this is an idea whose time has come. Something along these lines is clearly needed, and we seem to have tapped into a huge demand, even if it hasn't quite found its proper voice just yet. Whatever the results of the effort -- unparalleled success, we hope -- we have already learned an enormous amount about both the Internet's core constituency and the corporate world that hopes to work with the net to best effect. We think that the intersection of these communities will result in exciting -- and often surprising -- new enterprises, as well as in explosive economic growth across many industries.


Christopher Locke can be reached at Mecklermedia or by sending e-mail to He welcomes reader response as well as donations of surplus meat and vegetables.

Current note: While I am no longer at Mecklermedia, you can still send email to