Web Watch

Santa Claus Is Camming to Town

By Frank Ahrens
Sunday, December 18, 2005

Marketers have long relied on children as their most effective pitchmen. Kids get Mommy and Daddy to buy most anything. Now, kids are being enlisted to get their folks to sign up for Sony's video and voice Internet service.

It's a fiendishly ingenious plot, and it involves Santa. Actually, multiple Santas. On video. With no pants, maybe.

Sony, which is trying to make inroads in the voice-over-Internet market, will offer free video calls to Santa starting tomorrow if you download the company's free software. Santa will be able to see children who have Web cams on their computers as they see and talk live to him at the North Pole on Wednesday and Thursday.

SCROOGE-LIKE SPOILER ALERT: Sony has actually hired five Santa actors and they'll be on-camera at the company's headquarters in New Jersey. (Please note omission of obligatory New Jersey joke here. Consider it a holiday gift.) Because the Santas are shown only from the waist up and will be under hot television lights, a spokeswoman said it's very possible that the Santas may not wear their heavy Santa pants. She would not confirm or deny that they may not wear pants at all.

If Santa is busy talking to other kids, you can leave a video voice mail for him. If kids don't have a Web cam, they can still see a Santa and talk to him or leave him a message, even if he can't see them. Which, frankly, if I were a parent, I would probably prefer.

Sony's recently launched Instant Video Everywhere (IVE) service has a business plan similar to that of Skype, one of the most recognized Internet phone companies. Customers can get IVE for free, but it only allows you to call other IVE users. If you want to call off the network, IVE costs $9.95 per month.

So Sony is hoping that, once hooked by Santa and the amazing "2001: A Space Odyssey" world of video phone service -- which the unkempt everywhere are crying out for -- parents will sign up for the monthly pay service so they can call someone else besides IVE's 200,000 users.

Vonage, another Internet phone company, offers its own calls to Santa. Theirs is not a video service, so there's no telling what Vonage's Santas are wearing. Or not wearing.

E-Qaeda, Hollywood Style

On a less-festive note, Showtime's new original series, "Sleeper Cell," is a gripping drama that looks inside a fictitious al-Qaeda terror cell in the U.S. The five-member cell is plotting a chemical attack in California and is using 21st-century Internet tactics to do so.

Much has been written about "e-Qaeda" and the terrorists' adoption of the Internet to spread their hatred and further their cause. But I don't think I was fully aware of the chilling, hide-in-plain-sight possibilities the Internet affords terrorists until a scene in a recent episode of "Sleeper Cell."

Three cell leaders -- in a high-end hotel suite in Las Vegas -- discuss how to contact each other through use of the Web and over-the-counter software. Here's the dialogue from one of the cell leaders, as provided by Showtime:

"If we require further communication, here is the address of the Web site. It's secure. The password is hidden in a photo on eBay. There's a photo of a rug. Revert it through a Liquefied filter in Photoshop," and the password will appear.

He then concludes: "But don't buy the rug. I have the highest bid."

And all the terrorists share a hearty laugh.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company