As is the case with most heavily hyped phenomena, it’s hard to know exactly what to make of the Internet.

Some see broad, sunlit vistas of new opportunity; others see yet another threat to the national character. Some see a new economy, while others see the same old shell game.

There’s so much cross-prediction and counter-prognostication that it’s hard to really know what’s going on, but some neighborhood residents are working hard to position themselves on the leading edge of this new and often misunderstood technology.

Easy Sell

The biggest change Barbara Malloy, president and majority owner of the MasterLink Group, has noticed is that selling Internet marketing and website development requires a lot less preparatory work.

“Before,” Malloy says from her Lake Highlands office near Forest Lane, “you had to explain what the Internet was – it made the whole sales process a lot more difficult.

“Now, over the last year, especially, businesses have finally realized that the Internet is not a fad, it’s not going away, and it’s a legitimate way of doing business.”

“And that there’s a lot of business out there.”

MasterLink was founded in 1995; originally, the staff worked from their homes.

“When we went to the BusinessPlace ’95 trade show, we were the only Internet company there; people had no clue. Now, they’re taking it seriously – people who, 18 months ago, were only willing to spend $500 for a website are now talking about spending anywhere from $10,000 to $20,000 for another one.”

Customer savvy is increasing, too.

“A few years ago, it wasn’t uncommon to have a company that obviously had a fortune budgeted for brochures and print advertising, and when you went to their website it’d just look awful.

“Now, people are aware that no presence is better than a poor presence on the Internet. Your site is your electronic storefront, the first impression that people have of your company when they search for stuff – which more and more people are using the Internet to do.”

The growth of Internet awareness means customer relations aren’t just a one-shot deal.

“We’re an Internet marketing company,” Malloy says. “We partner with our clients and help them explore ways that the Internet can help them. We put a lot of emphasis on getting them found through search engines and directories – especially industry-specific directories – because it doesn’t matter if you spend $5,000 or $100,000 on a website if no one can find you.”

That strategy seems to be serving MasterLink: a Dallas Business Journal analysis of the Metroplex’s Internet service providers (ISPs) last year showed MasterLink tied for the No. 22 spot and on the same page with biggies such as Internet America, Southwestern Bell and Flashnet.

Customers include both major corporations such as CITGO Petroleum and Southwest Land Title, and beloved local entities such as Sergeant’s Western World and Sonny Bryan’s Smokehouse.

MasterLink has developed numerous in-house systems to aid customers, including a “shopping cart” program for online purchasing and “calculators” that can be used for online calculations of things such as mortgages and title insurance.

“Usually, it’s just a matter of confidence,” Malloy says. “People get their feet wet with a website first, then they start to find out what they can do in terms of customer service.

“That leads them to the realization that they can actually sell some product over the Internet, and then it’s like: Wow, we can tie this into our inventory and billing process and everything.”

And Malloy thinks that growth in expectations has only just begun.

“I think that 1999 is going to be the year that e-commerce and online shopping explode,” she says. “And there’s going to be more business-to-business commerce, both intra- and extra-net.

“I also think there’s going to be more and more ‘back end’ work, like database integration, where a company’s database is linked by a programming language to their web presence.

“That program dynamically creates and maintains those pages, so that when you have a change in your database, your website is automatically updated, instead of someone having to go to the page and physically change it.

“I wish I knew exactly what will be going on with the Internet in five years,” Malloy says with a laugh. “I do think that very soon it’s going to be people’s first source of information – especially for goods and services. I really think it’s going to level the playing field both for small business and for the individual.”

The Head Geek

The symbol of the leveling that Malloy spoke of for most here in Dallas is a simple phone number: 1-800-BE-A-GEEK, the numbers that Internet America’s late-evening TV commercials exhort the viewer to dial in order to become part of the “Internet revolution.” What you may not know is that the “head geek” – Mike Maples, Internet America’s president and chief executive office – lives near White Rock Lake.

Originally filmed with fairly basic production values, Internet America’s new generation of advertising spots is slick, graphically intense and sophisticated – mirroring the changes that have occurred at the company since its founding at the end of 1994.

Internet America is an Internet service provider, or ISP – part of the infrastructure that supports websites. In order to connect to the Internet, you need an ISP to serve as a bridge from your computer to the Internet.

With more than 50,000 subscribers and 96 employees, Internet America was ranked the Metroplex’s sixth largest ISP by the September 1998 Dallas Business Journal.

Internet America is almost certainly in the top 10 percent of Internet service providers nationally. More remarkable still is that, in an environment where losing money is almost an acceptable part of doing business on the Internet, Maple’s company is profitable.

“We’re an access provider, and we try to stick to that,” Maples says. “In this business, it’s real easy to get unfocused, to end up where you do a lot of things not very well.”

The TV commercials are another aspect of Internet America’s approach.

“Our marketing is very aggressive, because the basis of our plan is to get – and keep – a high percentage of customers in an area,” Maples says.

“When you can do that, you begin to realize tremendous efficiencies from a networking, cost and customer service standpoint.

“Because of that, we concentrate on getting high user densities in a few markets at a time. If you can get that density, you can actually make money, which is fairly unusual on this scale. Most of our competitors have never really made money, because they’re too spread out.”

As part of this plan, Internet America wants to be a “super regional” service provider. In areas where it doesn’t have facilities, the company will provide access through one of the approximately 4,000 smaller service providers that are scattered throughout the country.

Maples doesn’t expect that number to remain that high for long, however.

“The ISP situation right now is very fragmented, with most of your companies being very small, lacking the critical mass required to grow.

“Our next step is gong to be to go out there and aggressively acquire them.”

Those smaller entities aren’t free, however, and to build up a war chest for such a campaign, Internet America went public in December, trading on NASDAQ under the symbol GEEK. Although the stock performed sluggishly at first, by Christmas it had increased its value by an impressive 42%.

The bet that Maples and Internet America stockholders are placing is that the spread of Internet awareness will continue unabated.

“I think that the world has finally realized that the Internet is here to stay,” Maples says.

“The number of people who want to sign up is still increasing, and more importantly, their demographics are changing, moving away from the very tech-savvy and towards the mainstream.

“Right now, we have more people age 55 and up signing on than 15 to 25; currently, almost 45 percent of our new sign-ups are women. That makes it easier to raise capital and grow.”

Currently, IA is pushing into major Texas markets – Longview, Houston, Austin, San Antonio – but in a fluid marketplace, you not only have to plan your own growth, but the growth of the service you’re offering.

“The use the Internet is being put to is changing,” Maples says.

“Right now, it’s mostly e-mail and a little bit of browsing. E-mail use is really exploding right now, but the continued growth and evolution of commerce is going to be the big thing.

“The applications that are out there are starting to include all sorts of commerce – banking, travel, financial services, and retailing, like amazon.com – that could fundamentally change the way business works.

“The real growth opportunities, however, are in education; I think that the e-community isn’t taking advantage of it yet, but I think they’re beginning to become aware of what it could offer.

“Perhaps the parents of the kids will make that happen.”

Over Maples’ shoulder in his Downtown office is a stunning 30th-floor view of west Dallas. Light glints off of windshields as cars wind their way between storefronts, banks and apartments: entities that – if Maples’ intuition is correct – will come to depend on the Internet to an ever-increasing degree.

“My favorite quote,” he says with a smile, “is that the Internet changes everything it touches. And it touches everything.”