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'Net Insider:

Mapping a way forward

By Scott Bradner
Network World, 08/06/01            

I travel too much, far too much! (I got my "million mile flyer" card from United Airlines the other day - I would have put in about three months seat time if everything had been on time, but probably put in twice that in reality.) Most of the time I need to drive somewhere when I get to the destination airport. Figuring out how to get from the airport to my actual destination - usually some generic hotel room - has often been quite a pain. The Hertz computerized directions do help, but too often I forget to stop and get them, and anyway, I'm one of those people who needs a picture to really be able to understand where things are.

I've come to depend on MapQuest ( as a basic travel tool. It's a remarkable service, made even more so with its access to aerial photos and worldwide coverage. But I do worry if it will be around for as long as I will need it.

MapQuest is better off than many Internet-based service sites because it's part of a larger company with actual, real revenue. A year ago MapQuest was purchased by AOL in a stock swap that is worth only a bit less now than it was when it was completed. MapQuest also seems to have a business model that's a little broader than the all-too-many Internet sites that depend totally on advertising.

Having a pure advertising-based model is not a good thing to do in an environment where the advertisers can find out reasonably easily how well Internet advertising does not work. MapQuest augments its advertising revenue by selling mapping-related services such as click-on maps to businesses. But with only 1,800 customers, I don't expect that these services bring in all that much in comparison to MapQuest's expenses.

The ads on MapQuest's site can be a bit strange, too. One of the ads I got in looking up a technology company in Texas included a way to find nearby NesQuick retailers - not a connection I would have quickly come up with. I wouldn't think that the ads bring in all that much, either.

So what is a good way to get such a service paid for? The MapQuest Web page talks about what MapQuest brings to the AOL table: "Combining the AOL service and brands with MapQuest's online mapping products greatly increases the convenience and value of the AOL membership." As long as AOL thinks that, I would expect MapQuest to be around, but banking on intangibles is a risky future-proofing strategy.

MapQuest is not quite representative of the average Internet service, because it is part of a bigger company, but if it's hard to figure out a solid financial basis for MapQuest, what is the prognosis for stand-alone sites? I sure hope someone figures out how to do Internet micropayments soon, as I'm quite willing to pay for services of this quality. I do not see much other hope.

Disclaimer: Harvard and "micropayments" do not belong in the same concept, so the above ramble is my own.

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