It was twenty years ago today that Sgt. Pep . . . per . . . um . . . Marc Andreesen taught the Internet to play.
That’s right: on 11/11/1993, Mosaic 1.0 was set free from the National Center for Supercomputing Applications, located within the beautiful confines of the University of Illinois, located within that twin-town that some people call Chambana, located mid-state’ish within Illinois (please, do not pronounce the S at all, let alone like a Z, and do have it rhyme with boy and coy and goy and joy), thereby putting one of its creators, Marc Andreesen, on the map bigtime (a perch upon which he still, deservedly so I think, sits to this day).
And when I say “set free” I mean it, because Mosaic was free, as in it’s-yours-and-you-don’t-even-have-to-pay-for-it.
So it was also around this time that we first heard the couplet’ed phrases, “Yea, but how will they make money?” and “Well, once we have the eyeballs part down, we’ll figure out the revenue part, and then when we’ve figured out the revenue part, we’ll figure out the profitability part.” It was also right around then that we stated to hear, in a wholly different way, the stand-alone phrase, “It’s all about grabbing as much real estate as we can as fast as we can.”
I remember being in the infamous basement of the even more infamous Barrows Hall on UC Berkeley’s campus, in the fall of 1993, when someone showed me this different looking thing on a computer screen which, rather than being static, changed a lot because it was reflecting something else somewhere else. Wild!!
Before then we used a terrible chunk of browsing software called Lynx, which was all-text, all-the-time. Lynx was all about the keyboard: the tab key would take you from one clickable chunk of text to another clickable chunk of text, and then the return key took you down the hyperlink trail, where you remained immersed in a world forever devoid of pictures and graphic elements, inhabited solely by more text, usually in amber against a dark brown monitor cathode tube because that was the best looking text-only computer screen in those days.
Mosaic was much, much better; it used a mouse and it was not all-text all-the-time. It opened up the world, and how!
And pretty soon it was everywhere.
In fairly short order, Mosaic begat Netscape and Netscape grew into an Internet juggernaut that had Microsoft rocked back onto its heels from Day 1 of what I call the mass commercialization of the Internet. True, the Internet had existed before then for quite some time, but in that earlier period it was the province of scientists and academics and tech hobbyists. The coming of Mosaic heralded the end of that sort of parochial Internet, and the rise of the mass-use Internet that we use today.
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Throughout the two decades since passed, my wife and I have often found ourselves saying a simple phrase to each other, in total nodding agreement, most commonly after one of us has just viewed something served up by the Internet that strikes us as particularly wonderful and/or helpful and/or beautiful and/or eye-opening and/or wonderfully-mashed-up, to wit:
Ain’t the Internet grand?
Because it truly is, isn’t it? It went from zero to nearly all-encompassing in twenty years, and the first ten years alone were at least a half-encompass.
All of us alive are fortunate to be watching this thing unfold. Our great grandparents and grandparents and parents had the good fortune to live through industrialization and now all of us alive are living through internetization; we can only hope that future generations are similarly fortunate to have something so outrageously new-and-life-changing to experience, up-close and personal and astonishing.
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And what hath the Internet wrought?
I’ll leave it for the tech folks to hash out and nerd-argue and geek-berate each other about the tech parts of the mass commercialization of the Internet (e.g., does Marc Andreesen deserve big credit/is he a Great (Hu)Man or was he caught up in the zeitgeist?; how important was the role of the federal government and DARPA?; how would Steve Jobs have done it better?; and why is Android better than iOS or vice versa?; etc.) (just kidding on that latter one . . . ) (and confident that the second-to-last one truly would be a bone of contention).
Instead, I’ll stick to my knitting, which is financial health, and talk about how the Internet has impacted our financial lives, beginning with the disappointing and moving onto the thrilling.
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I have a saying about the Internet which comes in two parts. It’s possible that I am the creator of this two-part saying, but, with the Internet so pervasive these days, it’s entirely possible that I read it somewhere and forgot that I had read it somewhere . . . .
The first part of the saying is this:
The Internet changes everything.
And the second part of the saying is this:
Except the insurance and healthcare industries.
And that, my friends, has a lot to do, I believe, with why our healthcare system is so inefficient: it’s where those two dinosaur systems meet as they await the asteroid which will seal their fate, knowing that for the time being they are at the top of the food chain and have a lot of sway with the powers that be (not to mention a lack of true Internet-spawned competition . . . ). And, boy howdy, is this ever where the healthcare.gov tire meets the real-world road!
Now, I wouldn’t go so far as to ascribe cause and effect here (do insurance companies and healthcare providers not use the Internet much because they are inefficient, or are they inefficient because they do not use the Internet much?). But the fact remains that most insurance companies and most healthcare providers are downright and woefully pre-Mosaic when it comes to their use of the Internet. The are so 1992.
Here’s one example. I well remember in early 1985 when Edward, my then-boss, shelled out a lot of money for a Ricoh thermal-printing fax machine. It was bleeding edge back then. That was 28 years ago, which is a very long time ago technology-wise — so long ago, in fact, that when searching for an image of that Ricoh fax machine online (so as to provide a groovy link to a picture for the first mention above) I came up dry which is, after all, I guess not at all surprising given that that fax machine existed BIT (short for Before Internet Time).
And guess what?!? This past year as I was dealing with my father’s long term care insurance company, the entire process was fax-based. The long term care facility would fax bills and other reimbursement info to the InsCo., who would then typically not pay the reimbursement. Then I would call the InsCo. to see what the delay was and the InsCo. would then say they had never received the fax. And who’s to know where the ball was dropped (though the InsCo. *did* manage to *not* receive faxes from six different long term care providers . . . )? So I would then ask the long term care facility to re-fax their previous fax, and on and on it went, where it stops, no one knew . . .
But after a while (months, usually) each particular reimbursement request did bear some (often not all the expected) fruit, and some money flowed. Never once, though, did the three parties involved (i.e., the people working in the claims department of the long term care InsCo., me on behalf of my dad the long term care insured, and the people working in the bookkeeping parts of the various companies that provided long term care services to my dad) have the ability to all look, whenever we wished to do so, at a single unified data file housed within the Internet which contained all the pertinent info. What an idea, huh? A single unified record?
But that was not the way it worked: the way it worked was instead to make us all forever blind to what the other two parties were seeing. The facility and I only knew what we had attempted to provide to the InsCo. We had no way to track its arrival other than to call and ask if it had arrived. And that made it quite easy for the InsCo. to, perhaps quite conveniently, not be able to find our submittals.
[Aside: if I hadn’t seen this happen most months for the first 14 months of the 18 total, I would be skeptical of the assertion I’m making — that, plus hearing from lots of industry folks that this particular InsCo., even though it is a big well-respected InsCo. was notorious for loosing submittals and delaying payments.]
So, although the Internet truly — twooly — is grand, it ain’t worth diddley — ain’t worth diddley-squat — when it comes to vast swaths of entire industries that have somehow managed to carve themselves out from the The-Internet-Changes-Everything steamroller.
Which leads me to implore: InsCos of the world! Please use the Internet! With your customers! They will love you for doing that! Envision no more terrible EOBs sent through snail-mail!
And doctors! Yooz toos! Email is a great way to communicate! Don’t let the lawyers et al. make you non-communicate!
And thank you American Recovery and Reinvest Act (aka “the Stimulus”) for lighting a fire under the healthcare industry to get it to start being more 1990s in their handling of healthcare information and less 1970s.
When it comes to insurance and healthcare, then, the score is two great big The-Internet-Changes-Everything failures of the goose egg variety. Look there and all you’ll see are two old dinosaur Powers that Be, towering over and taunting a badly beaten and bruised whippersnapper Internet.
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But how about banking and investing? How has the mass commercialization of the Internet changed those two parts of our financial lives?
Here the story is much happier. To my way of thinking, the Internet has, with some provisos and more than a few asterisks, been tremendously life-enhancing in these parts of our financial world. And my hunch is that the banks, for sure, and most money managers and stock brokers as well, think the Internet has been great for their business as well. Everyone is glad the Internet came to town.
I’ve spoken about how the Internet has changed investing in my piece on self-directed investing (very short summary: subject to most of the provisos and asterisks mentioned above, online investing has been very good for people’s financial health). So I won’t go further on that topic here.
And what of the Internet and banking? The last twenty years in America have seen this industry go from one that contained many different types of lending and depositary institutions (banks and credit unions and savings & loans) of many different sizes, to, now, just a few small banks and credit unions (buh-bye S&Ls) holding their own, plus four truly gargantuan banks — I call them The Four Jumbos — which’ve gobbled up everything and everyone else: BofA, Chase, Citi and Wells.
The Four Jumbos for sure have their Internet act down. You never have to call them and you never have to talk to them. That hasn’t been good for branch employees, but it’s meant that, so long as you have access to the Internet, you can always know exactly what your bank knows about your numbers — the total opposite of the long term care InsCo. example from up above.
And that means that now there really is no excuse for most folks being ignorant about what’s going on with their bank accounts. And to a financial health guy like moi, having real-time access to that data is a great thing, as in: financial health ensues.
The smaller players have not, alas, been able to keep up; many of them have truly terrible Internet offerings. They usually buy their website dial tone, so to speak, from vendors who do a plug and play online banking offering, all of which tend to be weak and many of which are simply terrible. So, as creeped out as I am every time I say this, say it I do: pretty much everyone who is Internet-oriented should have one of The Four Jumbos in their life. Yes, they sometimes (often?) do bad things and, yes, they have too much (way way way too much?) concentrated power, but, yes also, having a massively Internet-connected banking life through one of the Four Jumbos is a very major convenience.
Just don’t keep a lot of dead cash parked there! Use and abuse them for their Internet chops, but do not pay through the nose for it by keeping a lot of dead cash there.
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The Internet has also changed the way a few — not many I’m sorry to say — financial planners help their financial planning clients above and beyond providing online account access/aggregation through the planner’s website. That sort of access and aggregation is a-dime-a-dozen and meat ‘n potatoes for brokerages and money managers and the like these days. So that’s not what I’m talking about here.
Instead, I’m talking about real The-Internet-Changes-Everything sort of change in the way financial planning happens. Who does that do and what does it look like?
I, for one, do that: I’ve designed my entire process around the Internet, and since I don’t manage client investments directly, you gotta know that online account access for clients via my web site has nada to do with what I’m talking about here.
So what does this look like in my service offerings? How has the Internet helped me structure and refine the process through which I help people improve their overall financial health?
I’m not talking; there are some things I like to hold close to my chest, and this is straight down the middle one of those things. Besides, I think the answers should be obvious to any Internet-savvy financial planner who does something more for his or her clients than just investing. But as to those financial planners who operate as little more than glorified, higher-paid stockbrokers? For them the answers are likely quite obscure indeed!
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The score, then, is in: two industries that have somehow managed to not succumb to the efficiency and beauty of shared digital information freely accessed from afar via this crazy little thing called the Internet (healthcare and insurance) and two (and a smidgen) industries that have taken to it wholeheartedly (investing and banking, plus one artisanal financial planning practice).
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So, yes: the Internet is grand. And yes: the Internet changes (nearly) everything it touches, and it touches everything, so that means that it instigates a whole lot of change!
Sometimes it takes old things and makes them better (e.g., your checkbook) and sometimes it creates new things that never existed on any kind of scale before (e.g., self-directed investing and John Friedman Financial‘s financial planning process). And it’s just about always disruptive and fascinating. And, oh yea, one last thing: it totally amplifies human nature, both good and bad, beautiful and ugly, in all of its glory and in all of its putridity. So let’s hope that human nature is inherently more of the formers and less of the latters.
In addition to thanking our veterans, then, on this day I wish to give a great big thank you to those who played a role — any role — in the good parts (only the good parts!) of the mass commercialization of the Internet, and to the Internet itself: you are one beautiful 20-year old. Shine on brightly.