I got to moderate a panel in Washington last Wednesday where I was the oldest but clearly the least wise. My three panelists where Meg Whitman, CEO of E-Bay (whose stock had jumped from 8 to 191 in the prior few months), Richard Owen, who heads up Dell On-Line (which currently sells $18 million of computers on-line a day), and Jay Walker, founder of Priceline.com (of which his personal stake was worth, that day, $9 billion). Jay was on the cover of last fortnight’s Forbes as the modern Thomas Edison.

Our audience were several hundred marketing executives from the mutual fund industry. My main function, as I saw it, was to remind the audience — confronted with the terrors of competition and obsolescence — that cocktails would be served immediately following the conclusion of our panel.

Richard Owen, of Dell, a British national with degrees in mathematics and economics and graduate of M.I.T.’s Sloan school, had turned 34 the day before. He is responsible for Dell’s on-line operations, and those operations are currently responsible, in turn, for 30% of Dell’s sales — the aforementioned $18 million a day. “How long,” I asked him, “before it’s 80%?” He gave a “who knows, exactly” sort of shrug, but casually guessed, “a couple of years.” What does this say for brick-and-mortar computer retailers like CompUSA?

Not that Dell sells through brick-and-mortal outlets itself; but what does this say about the growth of e-commerce generally?

Meg Whitman, CEO of eBay, must be about 43. After Princeton and Harvard Business School, she was a brand manager at Procter & Gamble, then a consultant for Bain & Co. (perhaps the most elite of the managing consulting firms), then senior VP of marketing for Disney’s consumer products division, then President of Stride Rite Corporation’s Stride Rite division (one of Stride Rite’s larger divisions, I’m guessing) — you may remember her launch of the Munchkin baby-shoe line — then President of FTD, the flower people, then General Manager of Hasbro’s preschool division (Mr. Potato Head) and now this.

Jay Walker, meanwhile, 42, doesn’t just control priceline.com, he runs an “intellectual property lab” with a dozen young inventors and a dozen patent attorneys. They are patenting business models, like the one for Priceline. Sure, he’s only worth eight or nine billion today — and most of it in somewhat iffy Priceline stock, at that. But this is one smart cookie. I predict he will one day be a very rich man.

As for his predictions, he ridiculed me when I asked him to predict something 10 years out. Ten Internet years, he noted, was like 100 regular years. It’s hard enough to see a few months into the future.

But looking ahead, he did see “a consolidation of the major portals” (huh? I thought Yahoo was already pretty much the major portal). And there was talk of a wall-sized always-on flat screen with multiple entry points — your whole wall would be the portal.

My panelists barely dignified the Y2K problem when I asked them about it (apparently, it’s being adequately solved — or at least it won’t affect them).

Jay kept talking about voice recognition. (Who needs credit cards? he wondered when I asked how people would pay for mutual funds if they bought them on-line as they do computers. In a few years, you’ll just say into the computer — “Computer! Shift fifty thousand dollars from my Chase account number six oh one five nine three triple zero eight into . . . ” — and it will be done.) I allowed as how the guys who can do impressions — “He sounds just like James Cagney!” — will become immensely rich impersonating others’ voices and draining their bank accounts. This comment was brushed aside without even a smile. (“Where did they get this guy,” I could hear my panelists wondering.)

It would be a rough few years ahead for the assembled, I summed up, as I announced, again, that cocktails would be served directly following the discussion. The world is changing fast. Mutual funds will not be marketed as they are today, and Jay may be working on a patent to sell them better even as we speak. Subtext: retire or get to work.

The good news? You don’t necessarily have to be in your teens or your twenties to participate in all this, though it helps. Take Richard Braddock, 57, former president of Citicorp. Jay hired him to run Priceline.com. Maybe one day my partners and I will hire the president of Exxon to run Quickbrowse.com.


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