A mere three years ago, in 1998, those few people in Britain wanting to set up shop on the internet were met with scepticism, if not mild amusement. Even though things were considerably further advanced in the United States, it was near-impossible to secure financial backing for internet-based business ventures, or "dotcoms" as they came to be known. But by the following year, attitudes in Britain had swung from an almost total lack of interest in anything to do with the internet to a feeding frenzy. Then, just as suddenly, the bubble burst; by spring 2000 the backlash was under way.
dot.bomb: The Rise and Fall of dot.com Britain charts the course of this short-lived mania, with characters who would not sound out of place in a blockbuster saga. We meet the early trailblazers who masterminded the likes of "free" internet service provider Freeserve; the beautiful people who brought us online retailers such as lastminute.com and boo.com and the young guns, such as school-aged Tom Hadfield and Benjamin Cohen who launched Soccernet and jewishnet.co.uk, respectively.
It seems obvious now that such a breakneck revolution was impossible to sustain in the face of such unrealistic profit forecasts, dismal management and an unseemly rush for stock-market flotation. But dot.bomb demonstrates just how much dotcoms were viewed at the time as a fast-track opportunity for anyone with even half an idea for an internet "start-up" to join the corporate big-hitters.
"For 1999 read 1789," says Rory Cellan-Jones: a new class was storming the Bastille of British business. Apparently it no longer mattered if you lacked business or education credentials, or even if you wore your shirt over your trousers - anyone could make their fortune with a dotcom. The reality of course was often far less radical. British dotcom stars Martha Lane Fox and Brent Hoberman, of lastminute.com, were Oxford contemporaries of Clickmango's Rob Norton and Toby Rowland (son of business tycoon Tiny Rowland). During the short-lived boom, it was people with the networking skills of the "old establishment" who stood the best chance of starting up.
Cellan-Jones finds few "reasons to be cheerful" in the post-bubble landscape. Not surprisingly, those futuristic predictions that all our commercial dealings would soon be conducted entirely in cyberspace have failed to materialise. But the fact that Britain's wired population continues to grow in spite of the dotcom crash must be an indication that the internet's strengths reach much wider than just e-commerce. Anyone today with a PC, web browser and modem has access to a globally distributed network for research and communication.
dot.bomb is entertaining, allowing readers to enjoy the rollercoaster ride without getting bogged down in technicalities. Cellan-Jones has extracted interviews from many of those burned by their experiences of the crash, experiences one might think they would be reluctant to relive. Says one such investor of his company's involvement in the ill-fated fashion retailer boo.com: "I hate the fact that we were ever associated with boo. But I can now look back on it as a few million dollars worth of education in how not to run a company."
Sarah Knowles is web assistant, The THES .
dot.bomb: The Rise and Fall of dot.com Britain
Author - Rory Cellan-Jones
ISBN - 1 85410 790 9
Publisher - Aurum
Price - £10.99
Pages - 250