Since the advent of navel gazing, wise men have debated whether economic progress should be credited more to the introduction of new technologies or to the people who put them to exceptional use. It's typically a fruitless exercise--like trying to figure out how many angels can dance on the head of a pin. But in the case of the Internet, there's something in the yin and yang of man and machine that's well worth contemplating. It's clear that while technology laid the foundations for the Web's first wave, it is sharp thinking by individuals that's powering the second wave--the e-business revolution.
Thus, we offer up BUSINESS WEEK's inaugural e.biz 25. It's our celebration of the innovators and influencers who are doing the most to spark a transformation of society that is every bit as profound as the Industrial Revolution. This is the PC biz times 1,000. That's because these 25 larger-than-life characters, and thousands more who are aspiring to be just like them, are determined to overthrow the old world order. Forget paper, fax, phones, and all those rabid sales people. The Internet way calls for direct contact between buyer and seller, collapsing space and time while cutting costs. "The Internet is not only creating a new industry in itself but changing the competitive landscape of every industry in the world," says Benjamin M. Rosen, the chairman of Compaq Computer Corp.
So who made BUSINESS WEEK's e.biz elite? Some of our picks are already bona fide captains of industry--like Yahoo! Chief Executive Timothy Koogle, financier Masayoshi Son of Softbank Corp., and e-commerce king Jeffrey P. Bezos of Amazon.com Inc. Others are as-yet unproven Netrepreneurs who made the list because of the radical trails that they're blazing--like Webvan Group Inc.'s Louis H. Borders, of Borders bookstore fame, who is turning his mathematical prowess on a huge Web conundrum: How to deliver perishable foods to cybershoppers everywhere.
DAREDEVILS. And then there are the best-kept secrets: Goldman Sachs & Co. tech IPO quarterback Lawton W. Fitt, for example, who laid the groundwork for the launch of 22 highfliers this year. Ever heard of Glen T. Meakem? You will. The founder of FreeMarkets Inc. is challenging fixed pricing by making it possible for all manner of businesses--even coal mines--to use the Web for their auctions of products and services.
It was no cinch to pick the 25 ultimate Netheads. We brainstormed and amassed a master list of more than 100 names. Then, over the course of three weeks and with much, er, spirited debate, the best of those rose to the top as the standouts we believe are most profoundly influencing the Internet today. They're the empire builders, the innovators, the bankrollers, the architects, the visionaries, and the pacesetters--daredevils who gladly risk all and leap the chasm between what they know and what they believe.
Here's a sign of how much things have changed. The daredevil of the PC generation is not on our list: William H. Gates III. It wasn't so long ago that the honcho of Microsoft Corp. seemed to have the computer industry in a brainlock. But now we're seeing the wholesale redistribution of leadership in the technology industry. Like the Web itself, the Internet industry has no center of gravity. It's creative chaos incarnate. Now, someone at Noname.com is just as likely to create the next great business as is someone at Microsoft. "The beauty of the Web is that it's open to everybody," says Scott G. McNealy, CEO of Sun Microsystems Inc. Everybody gets to stand on the shoulders of everybody else's work. That's why everything's accelerating."
Eventually, things will slow down. Power will coalesce, too. But don't expect the Internet to mimic the PC industry, with only a duo of dominant players. That's because the Net's technology underpinnings are not owned by one company--the way Microsoft owns Windows on PCs. Ron Chernow, author of Titan: The Life of John D. Rockefeller, Sr., doubts that anybody will be able to control the Internet the way Rockefeller controlled oil. "It's a very greasy pole," he says. "It's very difficult to maintain a dominant hold because of the speed of change and the competition that can emerge from unexpected areas."
The members of our e.biz 25 don't take their successes for granted. Even Bezos doesn't rule out the possibility that his seemingly unbeatable company might end up being just a "footnote" in e-commerce history. Or not. The fact that he's so watchful could assure that he will make our list for years to come.