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All Fed Up: eBay's Woes and the Web's Weak Link

The Internet's just plain old unreliable, and that can't go on.

Wow -- lots of grief out there in auctionland this morning. The huge online auction site,

eBay

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, has been down and out for a substantial period after its servers simply collapsed under the incoming load.

If you want to see what raw pain looks like in the Web business, take a look at eBay's online

log of efforts to get back up. Early this morning, the most recent guess for the time to be back in business was another "eight to 10 hours," but with phrases in the log such as "the damage to the system is more extensive than expected," this is a scary reminder of how fragile is the thread in the online world.

The first thing to be said here is congratulations to eBay's management for their forthrightness in posting this log for the world to see. With well over 2 million auctions going on right now, eBay owes it to it customers on both sides of those transactions to keep them posted on the delays. And it is. Few Web companies would do what eBay has done.

At the same time, eBay has been immensely frustrating to work with for weeks now, as the system has often been down, or partially down, much of the time. I can't tell you how often I've searched for something on eBay lately, gotten back a list of hits ... then found I couldn't access the pages that would actually let me bid on items in those lists. I'm only a very occasional eBay buyer or seller, but if I had been one over the past couple of weeks -- and especially, over last night and this morning! -- I'd be in a rage right now.

All this has gotten me thinking about the nature of the online auction business and the current race to add auctions to zillions of other Web sites. And about how fragile the whole Internet system is.

A few ruminations:

I think the mania to add auctions to so many other sites is a mistake, a shortsighted craze that will soon fade.

Amazon.com

(AMZN) - Get Amazon.com, Inc. Report

has been the noisiest about adding auctions, but

Yahoo!

(YHOO)

and other portals have been jumping in, too, of course, and many smaller sites now have more specialized auctions.

It isn't only the difficulty of keeping these up and running that leads me to believe this is a bad idea -- though that's a part of it, with tricky and potentially expensive implications for sites that do no better than eBay has been doing in keeping their auctions truly "live" -- but also the nature of the online auction process.

I visit these sites fairly often, and none --

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-- have been able to garner nearly the variety and number of auction items that eBay has drawn. In auctions online, just three things matter: the size of the database of items for sale, the number of potential buyers frequently visiting the site, and keeping the site up and running properly. Everything else is just so much background music.

eBay has done a simply spectacular job of building its national garage sale. The number, depth and astonishing variety of things you can bid on at eBay takes my breath away every time I visit. Moreover, the number of bidders is enormous. If you're a seller, you want as many possible buyers strolling past your tag-sale table as possible. If you're a buyer, you want as many items offered for sale as possible.

It's just that simple. In both cases, eBay is the hands-down winner -- and that's very unlikely to change. On Amazon.com, for example, I've searched dozens of times for items I was interested in ... yet have never found something I wanted to buy. Ditto the other wanna-be auction sites. On eBay, by contrast, I can't visit the site without finding a half-dozen or more things I want to buy. Restraint, Jim, restraint...

Similarly, as a sometimes-seller on eBay, I've been floored by the number of bids even the most obscure and arcane stuff I've offered has drawn. People come out of the woodwork in the eBay community to bid on things -- and as a seller, that's exactly what I want.

On the last point, keeping the site up and running, eBay has clearly overdriven its headlights, and is in technical trouble. But it can afford the technical resources to fix those problems, and it's inconceivable to me that it won't, and soon.

I think other auction sites -- except for very specialized ones, and especially the general auctions on major portals -- will soon fade. The action is at eBay, period ... even when the action is shut down by a megaglitch like this one.

That augurs very well for eBay's future, and for eBay's investors. Despite the high valuation, this one has legs.

Which leads me to the general unreliability of the Internet. Has there ever been a system of any kind, at any time in the history of humankind, that has been so widely used, so widely relied upon ... that has also been so fragile?

It isn't just getting enough bandwidth -- though that's part of it. It isn't just site design and site reliability -- though that's a part of it. It isn't just still-only-halfway-there, buggy Web browsers -- though that's a part of it. It isn't just tangles in MAE East and MAE West and the rest of the arcane technical infrastructure of the Net -- though that's part of it, too.

It's the whole shebang. Like many

TSC

subscribers, I rely on the Web a great deal. I buy and sell stocks on the Web. I find information I need on the Web. I buy books and CDs and pharmaceuticals and cameras and computers and much more on the Web. Heck, I make a good part of my living writing for publications on the Web.

But I can't rely on the Web. So often, far too often, when I need something -- and inevitably when I need it now -- the Web fails me. Something's broken. Somewhere. Again.

I'm fed up with that. I don't want to see huge government intervention, a nationalization of the Net infrastructure. I'm enough of a closet anarchist to believe that would make things worse, probably much worse, than leaving the government out of the equation.

But something's gotta be done. Soon. Or this beautiful thing so many of us have helped craft, have come to rely upon, is going to fall far, far short of what it can and should be.

No matter how bad Web reliability gets, the Web's not going away; there's already far too much momentum and size for that. But damn it, if we can't rely on it, we're not going to use it nearly so much, for so many important things, as we want to. And need to.

I'm fed up. This has to change.

Jim Seymour is president of Seymour Group, an information-strategies consulting firm working with corporate clients in the U.S., Europe and Asia, and a longtime columnist for PC Magazine. Under no circumstances does the information in this column represent a recommendation to buy or sell stocks. At time of publication, neither Seymour nor Seymour Group held positions in the companies discussed in this column, although positions can change at any time. Seymour does not write about companies that are consulting clients of Seymour Group, or have been in recent years. While Seymour cannot provide investment advice or recommendations, he invites your feedback at

jseymour@thestreet.com.