'When we read about these spectacularly successful young people - who through their boldness and vision . . . have created the greatest economic boom the world has ever seen, thereby benefiting all - we cannot help but express our gratitude as follows: 'I hope they get leprosy'.' Dave Barry, columnist DAVE BARRY'S SAGE WORDS aside, local Merrill Lynch analyst David Cui perhaps summed up the dotcom apocalypse best: 'We are in the fear phase of the cycle.' The other phase, of course, being naked, grasping, unfettered greed. Log on to the Internet and you can smell the terror seeping through the ether. Upstart start-ups that were here one day are dot-gone the next. Pimply moguls are daily dethroned, as seers - who just months ago were singing their praises - wipe the egg from their faces and predict a bloodbath. Half of Hong Kong's Internet companies, we are now told, will be toast within months. Listen carefully and you can hear the pop and crackle of paper profits going up in smoke. Dotcom has become a dirty word as the venture capitalists withdraw their backing and panicked investors sprint for the safer strictures of the old economy. It seems the information superhighway had some unforeseen twists and potholes. Hard to believe that a year ago the talk was of paradigm shifts and raging bulls. People variously watched with glee or green-eyed envy as the Nasdaq climbed from 2,000 just 18 months ago, to 3,000 by November, 4,000 by December and 5,000 by March before taking its spectacular tumble, when almost half was wiped from the index's value in a matter of days. Now, some of the most popular sites are those providing succour to burned entreprenerds. Not to mention the I-told-you-so merchants, wallowing in schadenfreude, such as the charmingly named F***edcompany.com, which lovingly documents each high-flier's graceless plummet to earth. The wired world has woken up to a king-sized hangover, as investors wonder why they threw money at companies that had no business plan, no track record, and no hope of ever turning a profit. Here, then, we attempt to chart the wild ride of the past 12 months. Hop on board the dotcom dipper, and hang on . . . August 1999: Roland Perry, editor of Wall Street's Internet Stock Review, reveals the existence of the MonkeyDex. It transpires that Raven Thorogood III, the five-year-old chimp who co-starred in Babe: Pig In The City, has been choosing stocks to invest in by throwing darts at a board on which 133 Internet companies are listed. After two months, his portfolio is up 60 per cent, making a monkey of most Internet investment funds. A study by Michael Cooper and Raghavendra Rau of Purdue University, Indiana - titled A Rose.com By Any Other Name - tracks 63 companies that tacked a dotcom on the end of their name. On average, over the two weeks after the name changes were announced, their shares gained 125 per cent more than their peers, after other factors like good earnings reports or mergers were filtered out. On the local front, China.com sounds an ominous note, revealing it expects to lose about US$17 million (HK$132.2 million) for the year. 'At this stage of the company's evolution, China.com will be investing in hiring people and opening new offices,' said Lehman Brothers analyst Stephen McKeever, before adding portentously, 'It is quite natural for them to invest more than what they are making now.' Amazon.com chairman Jeff Bezos, 35, is thinking along similar lines. While he has stock worth US$6 billion and 10.7 million customers, each passing quarter takes the online bookseller further from profitability. His stock is at US$97.44, down from a high of US$221 in April. Bezos says the 'bigger historical perspective' is more important than profits, prompting one investor magazine to dub the company 'Amazon.bomb'. September: Hong Kong is now in full dotcom frenzy, leading to some curious pronouncements. Such as Ocean-Land Group, a property and investment group starting an online bookshop it promises will be more profitable than Amazon.com - not much of a boast given Amazon's bottom line. Softbank's Masayoshi Son is hailed as the most powerful man on the Internet outside the US by Forbes, after he reveals by his own calculations he owns more than seven per cent of all Internet companies. Softbank holds 30 per cent of Yahoo!, the US search engine, and a further 50 per cent of Yahoo! Europe. The bank's stocks are up more than 700 per cent from its initial offering price two years ago. Chat room dweebs start playing Six Degrees Of Masayoshi. Everyone who's anyone is falling over themselves to speed on to the infobahn - despite many of them having nothing to do with the Internet. Cybersonic Tech-nology shares jump 50 per cent in a week, despite the fact that it makes footwear and consumer electronics. The Growth Enterprise Market (GEM), Hong Kong's Nasdaq manque, is soon to launch, with listing committee chairman Lo Cai-shui predicting 100 companies to be listed within a year. October: Self-satisfied, self-made fat cats of the Internet gather to celebrate the first anniversary of the monthly First Tuesday club, Europe's leading 'internetworking' event, where Web-heads and money men seek out each other. What started as a Soho get-together for a few friends a year later is drawing crowds of thousands. Organiser Nick Denton says: 'People are not judged by what they wear or how old they are. If anything, age is held against you.' Attendees get to wear colour-coded dots: green for ideas, red for money. Idle chatter gets short shrift. 'This is cold-hearted American-style networking and that's what makes the US great,' gushes Denton. 'We want to encourage proper matchmaking. We're a dating agency for the Internet.' November: ABN Amro Asia Capital Investment's Hong Kong managing director, Roger Marshall, articulates a looming problem: investment bankers know zip about the Internet, except that they must throw money at it. The race to get on the bandwagon has sent valuations soaring. Bankers admit they have no idea how risky their bets are, but they have to keep placing bigger bets to stay in the race. Marshall says: 'There is a certain amount of breaking of the mould going on that none of us is very certain or confident about, but you have to be prepared to go with it.' Or, as Jonathin Hakim, founder of Hong Kong-based online stock trading company Boom.com harshly puts it: 'The money is not that smart.' Hanson Cheah, executive director of AsiaTech Ventures, also weighs in: 'There will come a point where they [investors] differentiate between the word 'substance' and the word 'fluff'. But we are probably about two years away from that point. At the moment, people will buy anything with a dotcom at the end of it.' December: With Christmas fast approaching, parents are beginning to realise e-commerce is not all it's cracked up to be. Amid an orgy of screen-thumping and byte rage prompted by 'out of stock' and 'server busy' messages, analyst David Schatsky, of New York e-commerce analysis firm Jupiter Communications, reveals the Darth Vader-esque truth: 'This is the dark side of online retailing.' January: US academia is in uproar over whether e-business should be a part of the general business curriculum or a separate academic subject. Some deans choose separation and the new e-biz majors rapidly become the most popular courses on campus as scores of would-be Bill Gateses clutch their pocket protectors and rush to sign on. Naysayer Robert Hamada, dean of the Univers-ity of Chicago's Graduate School of Business, says: 'It's almost like making it [e-commerce] the flavour of the month.' Indeed. February: Marking perhaps the pinnacle of Internet idiocy, 345 inhabitants of a little town on the Idaho state border vote to change the name of their town from Halfway to Half.com, at the behest of a publicity-starved Philadelphia start-up. Piyush Singh, International Data's head of Internet Research in Asia-Pacific, is tuned in, overfed and maximum bullish on the hi-tech tip. 'Internet fever in Asia has just begun and the fundamental advantages for the region of doing business in the World-Wide Web remains,' he crows, stoking the fires of the coming apocalypse. Analysts estimate the market capitalisation of 'pure Internet plays' in Asia now stands at US$25 billion, and will reach US$60 billion by year's end if the madness continues. That's a big 'if'. Ironically, it's the 'old media' who are getting rich: in the first two months of 2000, 223 Internet-related companies advertised on television or in print - a 1,300 per cent jump from the same period last year. March: The crowds have barely begun to disperse from Tom.com's frenzied March 1 listing - which saw people queue up around city blocks to get a slice of Li Ka-shing's Internet debut - when tech stocks begin to dip and wobble. At the end of a nervous month, the meltdown begins in earnest. The Nasdaq goes into freefall, losing 40 per cent of its value in a couple of sweat-soaked horror sessions that saw geeks everywhere weeping all over their stock certificates. Hong Kong tech stocks head in the same direction. Seeking a silver lining amid the black clouds, Rob Leathern, analyst with Jupiter Communications, says: 'We might start to see new valuation standards, mergers and acquisitions among some of the smaller firms and a new way of looking at fresh ideas.' ?B?April:?B? The bad times are beginning to roll in earnest. Local entrepreneur and king of Lan Kwai Fong, Allan Zeman, delays the listing of his hi-tech venture ColbyNet, while Richard Li Tzar-kai's Pacific Century CyberWorks shares dip to a three-month low. Sunevision Holdings slip 12 per cent, Hongkong.com is down 16 per cent, and the GEM slides almost 14 per cent to 665.65. ?B?May:?B? The wheels have fallen off. E-tailers are persona non grata on Wall Street. The first companies are starting to go belly up as the funding evaporates. High-profile British online fashion retailer Boo.com goes spectacularly bust, amid tales of its staff's champagne, caviar and Concorde lifestyle. For a company with no retail stores and just a few hundred staff, it managed to burn through HK$1 billion within a year. It is snapped up at a bargain basement price by fashionmall.com. Softbank is in all sorts of trouble as it releases its annual results. Billions have been wiped from Masayoshi Son's fortune, as the stock price went south in spectacular fashion, dropping a whopping 87 per cent from its February record high. The foot soldiers put on a brave face. Says local portal Hongkong.com content producer Anthony Ng Kui-yin: 'With the potential of e-commerce, I doubt we are going to go under'. ?B?June:?B? The Cassandras are in full cry and the bears are running riot. Analysts are changing their tunes faster than a hip-hop DJ, falling over themselves to say how they predicted the bubble would burst. Michael Grant, head of Schroders Global Technology Team, reiterates his January prediction that there will be no dotcom companies within five years. 'This is the year the traditional or mainstream companies fight back,' he says. 'Traditional companies have three things the dotcoms lack: management depth, capital and strong brand identity. Today's dotcoms are run by mavericks. Their business models are unprofitable and they do not have staying power.' 'When it's all said and done, the fundamentals do matter,' adds Brian Mattes, of analysts The Vanguard Group. 'You can't get by with just a promise or great idea . . . you still need earnings because in the end that is what really counts'. ?B?July:?B? E-tailers are disappearing daily. Analysts are now rating them 'radioactive'. Some predict even the mighty Amazon.com could run out of cash as soon as September - something boss Bezos hotly disputes. In the US, Goldman Sachs reports that 10 of the top listed e-tail companies have months to live unless a cash infusion is swiftly found. In Britain, accounting giant Pricewaterhouse Coopers suggests 25 of 28 companies it studied will run out of cash within a year. In Hong Kong, it's predicted half of the dotcoms are not long for this world. 'We're about to see the revenge of the bricks,' adds Andrew Peck of analysts The Smith Group. Prominent media players, including SCMP and Next, shed staff from their online ventures in Hong Kong. Venture capitalists, meanwhile, are demanding sound business plans and profit projections from any dotcommers hoping to buck the trend and prise cash from their grasp. ?B?August:?B? 'Tom paints grim scene on Net' screams the ?B?Business Post?B? headline, heralding Tom.com's HK$193.89 million loss in its first six months following the sacking of 80 staffers and setting the tone for the rest of the month. The surprise final chapter of Chinesebooks.com, which had high hopes of being Hong Kong's answer to Amazon.com, is also penned, when it lays off 100 staff and goes into voluntary liquidation. Sunevision chairman Raymond Kwok Ping-luen warns of a grim war of attrition which only the strong will survive. Says Merrill Lynch's David Cui: 'There has been a complete reversal of the unrealistic expectations of the end of 1999 and the first quarter of this year. However, for the smart people in the industry, who are cashed up and in good shape, now is a good time to expand and look at picking up assets at very attractive prices.' In other words, the vultures are circling, looking for carcasses to pick clean.