On October 19, 1999, Britannica.com Inc., the Internet wing of Chicago-based Encyclopaedia Britannica Inc., announced that it would begin offering access to the contents of its world renowned encyclopedia free of charge via the World Wide Web to anyone who wanted to use them. The following day, after the news had spread that this reference service that heretofore charged a monthly fee had become free, the response was so overwhelming that Britannica.com's servers crashed. Britannica.com quickly announced that it would double, triple, and even septuple its server capacity, but all Web surfers get a week later is a politely written "busy message" indicating that Britannica.com continues to choke on its instant success. Yes, Britannica.com instantly achieved what innumerable other Web sites can only dream of--several million hits in a single day! That translates into an equal number of opportunities to sell goods and services, and hence attract large amounts of advertising revenue.
So what was at work here?
To anyone who has ever read the Tao Te Ching, a Chinese philosophical treatise by Lao Tse that summarizes the nature of the sublime force (the Tao) that underlies the phenomena of the cosmos, nature, and human society, what was at work here was the Tao of the World Wide Web. The Tao, according to Lao Tse, is a universal force unbound by time or space; it is the source from which all things come, and the source to which they return. The only way to make use of the Tao, he teaches, is through the application of the principle of wu-wei. This is usually translated literally as "non-action," but what Lao Tse seems to mean by this expression is "purposelessness," or "non-egotistical action." In other words, you become the master of the universe--or, on a smaller scale, create a successful business enterprise on the Internet--through selfless action. By putting the interests of others first, you in fact put yourself first.
Interestingly, wu-wei is what led to the creation of the World Wide Web. Tim Berners-Lee did not create the World Wide Web and its basic technologies with immediate profit or a business model in mind. He created it for the convenience of the researchers at the CERN particle physics laboratory in Geneva, Switzerland. And although there was no immediate profit for himself, he has since become the director of the World Wide Web Consortium and a scientist at the Laboratory for Computer Science at Massachusetts Institute of Technology. The same goes for Marc Andreessen who created Mosaic, the first Web browser that could handle text and graphics inside a single window. He was just a part-time programmer working at the University of Illinois' National Center for Supercomputing Applications who wanted to realize a nifty idea. Later he would go on to cofound Netscape Communications Corporation and become a multimillionaire, but only after being recruited by a venture capitalist. By not striving for profit, you in fact profit handsomely.
Ah, but striving to make a profit has been what Encyclopaedia Britannica has been trying to do for well over a decade now. Up to the 1970s and before before the advent of personal computers and the Internet, the company made a profit selling its highly regarded encyclopedia in book form through a vast network of sales agents. The 32-volume set is still in print and sells for $1,250. However, after CD-ROM storage technology hit the scene and cheap one-disk encyclopedias such as the Grolier Multimedia Encyclopedia began appearing in computer shops, Encyclopaedia Britannica's management did not know what to do. They answered the under $100 multimedia encyclopedias like Grolier's with a text only CD-ROM version of the Encyclopaedia Britannica priced at $995! Competitors breathed a sigh of relief. Then the Internet and its "everything's for free culture" was opened to the public, and Encyclopedia Britannica took another hit. While several competitors opened up encyclopedias on the Web free of charge, Encyclopaedia Britannica decided to charge around $100 per year for access. Web surfers went with the freebies.
And so as the loses mounted and executive resistance to giving away the "crown jewels" slowly melted, someone at Encyclopaedia Britannica's headquarters had a "brilliant idea." Instead of trying to profit from access to the contents of the Encyclopaedia Britannica, let's try using them as bait to sell other things! In fact, why not go a step further and make Britannica.com a portal site?! And that's exactly what they have constructed at Britannica.com. Not only can Web surfers search through the contents of the Encyclopaedia Britannica, they can also look at the latest news, selected magazine articles, and a directory of Web sites that Britannica.com's editors believe are the best on the Web. If those editors are on their toes, they might realize that with the aid of a good search engine, the World Wide Web functions just like a gigantic version of an encyclopedia, except that the Web content on a given topic in many cases is more detailed than what's in an article in the Encyclopaedia Britannica. And therein lies yet another challenge for the beleaguered managers of Britannica.com.
Many readers may recognize the brilliant idea mentioned above as the winning strategy of profitable Web-based business enterprises, such as Yahoo! In other words, the solution to Britannica.com's problems has existed all along, but the people running the company couldn't see it early on. Why? Most likely, the financial loses the company experienced took a toll on management's ability to see the Tao of the World Wide Web for what it is. When a company is bleeding money, the first thing managers think of is how to stop the bleeding. But after there had been protracted financial bleeding with no end in sight, it became apparent to management that new financial blood was needed. Since borrowing doesn't seem to have been an option, there was only one other solution if the company was to remain independent--a new business model based on the Tao of the World Wide Web. The Tao of the World Wide Web had finally become apparent to Encyclopaedia Britannica's management! And that's why the Tao is so elusive--it's everywhere to be found, but it can only be seen when you've given up looking for what you think you should be looking for.