(Written in July, 1996)
by Jim Heaphy
Everywhere you look these days, companies are are advertising their addresses on the worldwide web. The Internet is booming, linking over 225,000 server computers, and membership in commercial online services, such as America Online, Compuserve, Prodigy and the Microsoft Network, now exceeds 10 million people. Although there's a lot of hype, there is also an incredible amount of information available to anyone with a computer and a modem. How much of it is useful to countertop fabricators? How about opportunities for advertising and marketing? The time has come.
If you want to start surfing the 'net, it's important to recognize some basics. The online world is something like a frontier boom town. There's a lot that's wonderful going on, but there are also a lot of shady characters, false information and rickety structures all over the landscape. Maintain a healthy sense of skepticism about the information that you run across. It's a rapidly changing world - today, you might fail to find the information that you need, and tomorrow, a beautiful web site may open up offering more than you ever wanted to know about that subject.
(1/6/00 - NOTE: The following recommendations were written in 1996.)
Here are the basic tools that you'll need: An up-to-date computer equipped with the fastest modem you can get. Currently, 28,800 bps, or 28.8 for short, is the fastest modem commonly available for personal computers. A slow modem will make your life online miserable - it's barely worth the effort with less than 14.4 speed. Then, you should decide if you're going to use one of the big commercial online services mentioned in the first paragraph, or obtain a direct Internet connection through an Internet Service provider (ISP). The online services are friendly for beginners and give you free software, but are very expensive if used over 10 hours per month. The ISP's tend to be much cheaper for heavy users. If you use an ISP, you'll need browser software - Netscape Navigator is the most popular. I use both America Online for their chat rooms, bulletin boards and e-mail services, and a local ISP for my Internet connection. My cost is a dollar a day.
How do you find what you want on the Internet? Well, you use a program called a search engine, and they are free on the worldwide web. A search engine is like an automated catalog - you type in a few words describing the subject you're interested in, and you are presented with a list of web pages or articles that meet your description. My favorite search engine is AltaVista, a service of Digital Equipment Corporation. It's located at http://altavista.digital.com/. (Remember that these web addresses, called URL's, must be typed in exactly as they appear.) AltaVista keeps track of over 22 million web pages and 3 million online articles. Searching for the word "countertop" produces, in just 10 seconds or so, the information that 2,942 worldwide web pages mention countertops in some fashion. AltaVista then starts by listing brief but useful descriptions of ten of these. Most are irrelevant, just passing references, and who wants to try to read 2,942 pages of information in the hope of finding something useful? Our search needs to get more specific.
When I searched for the name "Wilsonart", I learned that 553 web pages mention that brand name. Among them is the Wilsonart Home Page at http://www.builderonline.com/~wilsonart/index.html. Available there is a glossary of countertop terminology, fabrication tips and information describing the various products in Wilsonart's line. I wasn't able to find corporate home pages for Formica or Nevamar, although those brands are mentioned in many other web pages.
DuPont Corian is mentioned 1,190 times on the web. DuPont has an extensive corporate home page called DuPont Company Overview at http://www.dupont.com/corp/gbl-company/overview.html. There, you can learn that DuPont has 105,000 employees and annual revenues of $42.2 billion. Unfortunately, there is no DuPont corporate web page for Corian at the time of this writing, but they do have home pages for products like Stainmaster, Antron, Tyvek and Coolmax. I expect to see a Corian page soon. However, several companies other than DuPont have web pages describing Corian. One can be found at http://www.kitchenet.com/merchant/leduc/solid4.htm. This web page was created by a countertop fabricator called T.C. LeDuc of West Springfield, MA. This is one of the few fabricator home pages on the web right now. My guess is that there will be hundreds in a year or two. I know I'll have one - I'm working on it now.
Avonite is mentioned 103 times on the Web. They don't have a corporate home page either, but you'll find listings for Avonite distributors, homes for sale featuring Avonite tops, and so on.
Browsing these web pages can produce some interesting nuggets of information. How else would I have learned that some Famosa Expresso cappuccino machines have Avonite work surfaces, or that some Mitsubishi big screen TVs have Corian tops?
An online service called Home Building & Remodeling Resources has a directory of materials for countertop fabrication located at http://www.buildandremodel.com/ctops.htm.
KitcheNet, an online source of information about the kitchen and bath industry, is located at http://www.kitchenet.com/ktchnet.htm. KitcheNet frequently quotes articles from Kitchen & Bath Design News in their web pages. They have information pages on many products. For example, at http://www.kitchenet.com/mfgs/swan/swan.htm you will find KitcheNet's web page for Swanstone kitchen sinks. It has small photos of all their models and links to in depth technical information.
Some of these on-line names can be confusing. Another kitchen and bath information source called Kitchen.net is located at http://www.kitchen-bath.com/kitchenbath.htm, and then there's KitchenWeb located at http://www.kitchenweb.com/index.htm. All are in their infancy, and all have at least some information of use to countertop fabricators.
Several of the home remodeling TV shows have web pages that feature information about countertop fabrication and installation. For example, the TV show "Hometime" has an extensive web page with a directory of countertop manufacturers located at http://www.hometime.com/tm/tm2count.htm.
An independent TV station called UPN 44 has some interesting Web pages on Corian countertops. Basic information is at http://www.upn44.com/corian/, sketches of common edge details are at http://www.upn44.com/corian/corcounters.html, and information about how to measure a countertop is at http://www.upn44.com/corian/corsketch.html.
Another cable TV show called Your New House has a web page featuring a good product directory. For example, their information on Corian is located at http://yournewhouse.com/dupont/corian.html.
The commercial online services have somewhat less specific information to offer regarding countertops, but all do have the ability to connect to the worldwide web. For example, America Online's Housenet section features a photo and an article on The Corian 872 A/S sink, which is being promoted with discounts. Much of the information is oriented to do-it-yourselfers, such as an article called "Replace a Sink, Replace a Counter Top"
The commercial services can provide an easy and friendly way to make connections with people who have interests similar to yours. It's a breeze to communicate with these people by e-mail. For example, through America Online's "Search Member Directory" function, I found 14 members (including myself) who are involved with Corian fabrication, and two who are involved with Avonite fabrication. Searching "Countertop" yielded about 15 members in the countertop business. Searching "solid surface" produced 8. Searching "Gibraltar" produced 26 names. However, most of these folks live in Gibraltar, Michigan or have vacationed in Gibraltar on the Mediterranean. Only one was a Wilsonart Gibraltar fabricator. You always have to be careful when searching this way, because it is very easy to turn up useless connections.
I'm excited about the potential of the information superhighway, and I'm convinced that, by the turn of the century, its use will be as common in small businesses as the fax machine is today. What do you think? Send me e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org, or write to me at this magazine.