Internet enthusiasts speaking to a convention in New York this week displayed little patience for such hotly debated issues as whether the communications infrastructure is adequate or secure enough for a new wave of on-line commerce and banking.
Their message to an audience of about 5,000, some of them bankers weighing their Internet options, was simple and direct: Get on board, ready or not.
"This year is very important in laying the foundation," Microsoft chairman Bill Gates said during his keynote address to the Internet and Electronic Commerce Conference.
He painted his characteristic picture of a rosy high-tech future and pledged Microsoft would do its utmost to "bring a human touch" to what is now "a fairly cold environment" on the Internet.
Mr. Gates was not alone in feeding the frenzy and flogging his wares. Also on the all-star speaker lineup assembled by the Gartner Group, the Connecticut-based consulting firm that organized the event, were Netscape Communications Corp. chairman Jim Clark, Sun Microsystems Inc. chairman Scott McNealy, and America Online chairman Steve Case.
The anticipation level was especially high for Mr. Gates' speech Monday, as it was in December when he addressed the Bank Administration Institute's Retail Delivery System conference in Atlanta.
The December talk was Mr. Gates' opportunity to mend fences with bankers, who in general had been offended by his assertion that the industry might go the way of dinosaurs.
The New York event gave the software mogul a chance to clarify his stance on the Internet, which many technology experts considered a threat to Microsoft and its more proprietary approach to networking.
Mr. Gates, who in recent months confounded those experts by incorporating the Internet in Microsoft's strategy, applauded companies' use of "intranets," or internal networks built on Internet technology, as a stepping stone to the broader realm of the World Wide Web.
Microsoft is playing to this trend by upgrading its NT server and workstation technology to be more Internet-capable, and releasing a series of "Internet add-ons" like Microsoft Exchange for business messaging.
Mr. Gates still cautioned that "it's easy to get ahead of ourselves and think this (Internet revolution) is going to happen overnight." He pointed to a few key "Internet issues" that have yet to be worked out, such as the need for greater bandwidth to speed the flow of data to computers on the network.
Among his predictions for the future were widespread availability of $700 and $800 personal computers, broad access to the Internet in schools and other public places, and a shift from "static" to dynamic and interactive Web sites.
He demonstrated his vision of the Web site of the future, where miniature movies pop up in on-screen windows, objects can be rotated 360 degrees, and video conferencing is routine.
Mr. Gates also impressed the crowd with a virtual sporting goods store. A customer could view a pair of skis from all angles, test their flexibility, and talk live to a service representative about their specifications. He could also check his credit card balance before purchasing the skis on-line.
"Very few Web pages will be 2-D experiences," Mr. Gates said. "They'll be places where you can go and walk around, and where your walk around will be customized to your interests."
At panel discussions, several speakers acknowledged the chasm between today's reality and Mr. Gates' vision.
"There is a lot yet to be done for us to reliably, securely conduct electronic commerce," said James Mulford, executive vice president of SSDS Inc., an Englewood, Colo., company that develops electronic commerce systems.
At a session on "The Risks of Doing Business Online," Mr. Mulford predicted that bandwidth problems would be solved by the end of the decade. He also said companies need to coordinate customer service efforts as they begin working "synchronously" on the Internet.
"If I order a suit to be delivered the next morning and it's not, who do I call?" Mr. Mulford said. "AT&T? The retailer? Federal Express?"
Joseph Thompson of Technology Solutions Co., Chicago, warned that most companies lack the "technology and infrastructure" necessary to conduct electronic commerce today.
"Most companies aren't thinking beyond putting up a Web page," he said.
These companies include banks. At a session titled "Banking over the Internet," Ira Morrow of the Gartner Group suggested some banks "have decided to throw up their hands, and some have decided to throw up a home page."
To attract customers, banks should focus on providing Internet banking services "easily and cheaply," said Daniel Schley, chairman and chief executive officer of Home Financial Network in Westport, Conn., which is offering systems to help banks do just that.
"What consumers want to do is get the job (of banking) done and they really don't want the superfluous functionality," Mr. Schley said.
Michael Taylor, a director and vice president in the San Francisco office of Arthur D. Little Inc., said that banking via the Internet "presents an opportunity for those who are relatively unbranded."
He advised bankers to wade into Web technology sooner rather than later.
"It's like nearing a waterfall," Mr. Taylor said. "By the time you hear the waterfall, it's probably too late."