The mad dash to succeed on the Internet brings to mind another heated technology competition-the race to land a man on the moon.
The underlying anxiety for many business leaders is fear of extinction. To predict the electronic commerce winners, you must recall the early lessons of the space race, capped 30 years ago this week by the U.S. lunar landing.
You must look beyond wizardry and braggadocio to uncover who has a clear strategy and superior resources. The competition between President John F. Kennedy and Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev is instructive.
When the Soviets were the first to send a man into orbit, Americans shivered. Yet inside the Kremlin, the Soviets bickered. One proposal called for collaboration with the Americans on a lunar venture, something President Kennedy proposed and Khrushchev refused. Ignoring the race and spending money on weaponry was another proposal.
Short on formal strategy and minus a private industrial base, Mr. Khrushchev still managed to frighten us terribly at the time.
Similarly, firms that are mostly untested are attracting huge sums of equity capital with little or no earnings.
In contrast, the United States laid out its strategy for the space race as early as 1961. President Kennedy told Congress-and the world- that the United States would be the first to fly its flag on the moon and have a man walk there, we would bring him back alive, and we would do it before the end of the decade.
To measure the potential of electronic-commerce players, we should seek out those companies that articulate a Kennedy-esque strategy - as believable as it is grand, specific, and measurable.
Therein lies another lesson from the race to the moon. In the 1960s, the link between "believable" and "grand" proved to be the resources available in a superior economy. As noted in a recent article in The New York Times Magazine, the Soviet Union was "15 years past a war that killed 27 million of its people, (and) eight years past the vicious rule of Stalin. It had no nimble private industrial base-no General Electric, no Lockheed, no Boeing."
In a race that lasted 98 months, from President Kennedy's speech to Neil Armstrong's landing, the Soviet Union fell 39 months behind. Similarly, in the race to the Internet many initiatives are launched by companies without the necessary resources. We need only recall the ventures hailed for their promise that fizzled out or were gobbled up. Netscape springs to mind.
I have lost count of the times I have been asked if the creation of this or that Net bank is a threat to Bank One.
Certainly all competition concerns us. But Barnes & Noble versus Amazon.com aside, in most quarters there remains a clear distinction between on-line start-ups and established companies that have a commitment to the Internet as a sales and service channel - the ability to invest in brand-building marketing and an understanding of which products and services will make a difference to customers.
The total customer base of the most established e-banks is generally equivalent to the number of on-line customers the country's biggest banks add each month.
Therein lies the final clue to who are the real winners in our greatest technology races. The storytelling comes easy when we paint the race to the moon as a competition between two people (Kennedy versus Khrushchev) or two countries (United States versus the Soviet Union).
But the real winner of the space race has been mankind. And it's obvious to me who will be the ultimate winner in the race to the Internet - mankind again.
NASA says there have been more than 30,000 spinoff products and technologies since its inception in 1958. That's 30,000 ways the space race has improved our quality of life.
Similarly, the race to the Internet and its ability to improve our quality of life is a story that is only beginning. Order groceries and have them delivered to your door. Choose a new car and options, then pick it up at your convenience. Receive approval for a loan in less than a minute at any hour. And who knows what else is to come?
What is clear is that the public rules in this race, and the companies that serve them well will be the winners.
The companies that survive and prosper will not be those with the most overnight millionaires. The winners will be the ones that give people convenience and control in their lives. Bruce Luecke is the president of interactive delivery services at Bank One Retail Group.