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Modem Driver: Dough! Net conference about money overculture

Sunday, April 9, 2000

Dave Plotnikoff
KRTBN Knight-Ridder Tribune Business News: San Jose Mercury News – California
Copyright (C) 2000 KRTBN Knight Ridder Tribune Business News;
Source: World Reporter (TM)

LOS ANGELES–THE DIGITAL BAZAAR AT INTERNET WORLD CONFERENCE: If there was one exhibitor that managed to capture the spirit of the Internet World exhibition and conference in Los Angeles this week, it was DigitalWork.com.

At the back of the company’s modest exhibit space was an inflatable rubber booth the size of a shower stall. The floor of this booth was carpeted with money. At some set interval, a lucky visitor would be invited to step into the booth, powerful fans would blow, and that person would feverishly grab at the machine-made tornado of cash swirling around.

Yes, I thought, this is it. This is why half of Silicon Valley climbed on shuttle planes this past week and cheerfully marched through the Los Angeles Convention Center en masse. Figuratively speaking, we’re all here because we want to take the money shower.

It seems as if the entire world wants to reach out and grab the commercial potential of the Web. And Internet World is the place where businesses go to gear up on everything from data pipelines to banking services. Oh, yes, there was also Pamela Anderson Lee. And a fishy-smelling new category of Web technology. But make no mistake: This was a trade show, not a cultural happening.

The most compelling news in the digital bazaar concerned the ongoing race to free the Net experience from the desktop. There’s a long way to go before we see meaningful Net connections on everything from cell phones and pagers to jewelry and jukeboxes, but clearly, step by maddening step, progress is being made.

I saw more than a dozen companies working on different approaches to the interfaces that will connect the Net to various devices. One of the most crucial challenges right now is the question of how to reconfigure Web content so it fits on the limited displays of cell phones, pagers and PDAs. As John Patrick , IBM’s vice president of Internet technology, noted in his keynote address Wednesday, Palm-type devices may turn out to be the only personal computer used by a significant slice of the population.

The “Brave New Unwired World” fashion show featuring designs from Charmed Technology (www.charmed.com) appeared to be a hit, drawing a respectable mid-day crowd of more than 200. The hardware worn by the pouty, rail-thin runway models ranged from the intriguing to the flat-out farcical. There were Internet-equipped pendants and earrings the size of golf balls, wrist contraptions that looked like leftovers from a Star Trek garage sale, plus all manner of wired goggles and earpiece devices. In a triumph of style over TCP/IP substance, none of the gee-whiz hardware was ready for consumers. The vast majority of objects were billed as either “conceptual pieces” or prototypes.

TelSurf Networks (www.888telsurf.com) showed off its “audio browser,” voice-controlled technology designed to deliver most e-mail plus sports scores, weather and other small bits of information over any telephone. The free, ad-supported service expects to roll out around the country next month.

InternetSpeech.com had a considerably more ambitious play in the Net-over-phone area. Its subscription-based ($29.95 per month) system called NetECHO is supposed to deliver content from any Web page over any phone. I watched as company founder, president and CEO Emdad Khan tried valiantly for 10 minutes to get the voice-activated system to work with a phone on the noisy show floor. The demo went from bad to worse when I asked him to take me to a site not on his list of preset audio bookmarks. After 10 more minutes of trying to navigate the system via voice and keypad, I’d seen enough. The problem, Khan said, was the noise. I’m not so sure. The impression I got was this could be the worst of voice mail plus the worst of Web design, together in one hard-to-use, clunky interface.

As usual, the show floors were jammed with flashy amusements, from a wrestling cage to a climbing wall to a full-scale bistro. Between the Humvees, BMWs and VW Beetles being given away, a Web hosting company called Intermedia.net did its best to stand out by parking a genuine Olympic bobsled in its booth. The sled was borrowed from the Armenian bobsled team, whose captain is none other than the Intermedia vice president of business development Dan Janjigian.

If this is the year Hollywood finally discovered lucrative life on Planet Geek, you couldn’t tell it from the celebrity lineup at Internet World. One could see more star power during a long lunch at the Ivy.

At Cardservice International (www.cardservice.com), baseball Hall of Famer Steve Garvey was patiently talking credit-card processing with groups of 10 to 20. He would do his 12-minute spiel, sign some baseballs, shake some hands and start all over again — 10 times a day. (Garvey, a smooth operator who’s run his own marketing and promotion company for years, sells autographed balls on his own Web site, www.stevegarvey.com, for $49 each, making the Cardservice balls some of the most valuable freebies at the show.)

In the CelebStreet booth at the entrance to the West Hall, Pamela Anderson Lee (she of “Baywatch” fame and sundry tabloid exploits) sat with her head down, signing publicity stills. Surrounded by bodyguards and looking sullen and tired, she said nothing to the crowd of two dozen young male admirers who watched from 15 feet away. One got the distinct feeling that this one is not long for fame’s warm embrace. With or without the Internet, five years and she’ll be doing car shows and county fairs.

Amusements aside, there were some substantial tech developments being touted at the show. At the top of the list, Netscape released the first beta version of the Netscape 6 browser for a variety of operating systems. (Yes, the new browser — based on open-source code developed by the Net community — was so long in coming that they simply skipped the “5” designation altogether.)

Key selling points for the new version: faster downloading, easier installation, quicker page-draws, new personalization and instant-messaging features and the ability to access multiple e-mail accounts (including AOL) simultaneously.

It’s been a long time since many Netscape users have gone through the upgrade process, so the usual caveat bears repeating: Although I know of no instability problems, bugs or conflicts with Netscape 6, it is beta software and users would be wise to back up their existing software before forging ahead. Users should be able to run Netscape 6 and previous versions side-by-side without any problems. The current beta release is available for free download at www.netscape.com/download. Expect the final “gold” version to show up sometime in the second half of the year.

WebWasher.com, a six-month-old spin-off from German computing powerhouse Siemens, showed off the latest (2.0.1) version of its free software, which filters out unwanted ads, pop-up windows, animated images, Javascript and applets. The company says the software, which acts as a sort of proxy server on the user’s machine, dramatically decreases the amount of material that must be downloaded for each page and can reduce bandwidth demands up to 45 percent. The software, which has been purchased by about 150 corporate customers, is free to individual users at www.webwasher.com. About 3 million people have tried it so far.

Finally, in the category of dubious digital achievements, we have DigiScents (www.digiscents.com) plugging its iSmell(TM) technology, which is billed as “the world’s first end-to-end solution for scent-enabling the Internet.” Skeptical souls and those who recall the Smell-O-Vision cinematic debacles of yore may find something distinctly fishy about the scheme. Founder and CEO Joel Bellenson insists his venture is not a hoax.

Wednesday he held forth at a small, heavily perfumed booth in the south hall, extolling the speaker-sized computer peripherals called Personal Scent Synthesizers, which should hit the market later this year. He also talked up plans for the Snortal (“the Internet’s first scent-enabled portal”) and ScentMixer software that allows developers to create specs for their own smells.

The first application for the iSmell technology will be gaming. One can only imagine what’s next to hit the nose.

David Plotnikoff writes about the wired life for the Mercury News. Contact him at [email][email protected][/email] or (408) 920-5867. On the Web, http://www.mercurynews.com/