By Leslie Walker
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, February 10, 2000; Page E01
INDIAN WELLS, Calif. – I'm ready for the push-button Internet. I got a tantalizing taste of it this week as I turned the knob of a Kerbango Internet Radio, flipped through colorful images stored in an Internet-enabled picture frame and waved a PrestoTag to identify myself to an e-shopping site.
These prototypes on display at a trade show here – all hitting the consumer market this year – whetted my appetite for the super-smart network that promises to be my personal living guide in the digital age. I am ready to cut my mouse loose and surf the Net using familiar objects around my house – the TV, the stereo, and the refrigerator that will e-mail my milk order to Safeway before I even notice I'm running low.
Okay, this vision is still largely fantasy. But I did see a few trends at the high-tech Demo conference that made me think the Net is about to get a lot smarter as it leaps from desktop computers into portable Internet appliances. The flip side, of course, is that the Net will also feel more invasive as it grows more pervasive – and several companies were here showing privacy control panels to help us keep cyberspace at bay when we're in no mood for digital company of any kind.
Two forces I saw here are accelerating this drive to make the Internet smarter and friendlier: First, entrepreneurs clearly sense that consumers are growing more open to new business models, partly because they have been exposed to so many novel ones as "dot-com mania" took the world by storm over the past two years. This perceived openness makes entrepreneurs even more willing to experiment, which increases the odds they will produce ideas that consumers might actually like. (It means more nutty notions, too, but more about that later.)
Second, many companies have been launched recently that sell tools for creating and automating new Internet businesses. Netscape co-founder Marc Andreessen described how his Loudcloud Inc., one of these new companies, can cut in half the amount of time it takes a baby dot-com to develop the messy back-end software systems that big Web sites need. Others were showing fancy tools for automating Web marketing and sales (Salesforce.com), Web project management (MS2 Inc.), Web e-mail management (Sendmail's new point-and-click e-mail system) and – the one that had dot-com execs drooling – instant, detailed analysis of what customers like and don't like about any Web site (Vividence).
The combination of new tools and new consumer attitudes means that entrepreneurs today can get business ideas to market faster and at significantly lower cost. With less to lose, entrepreneurs are dreaming up more high-risk concepts and floating them online as trial balloons.
Idealab founder Bill Gross floated a big one with his latest Web business: MakeAnOffer.com, a real estate site centered on homes that aren't for sale. Go ahead, Gross said, make an offer "and we will communicate your offer to the homeowner anonymously." At the moment, MakeAnOffer.com is little more than a Web page that encourages people to enter profiles of their homes if they're open to receiving unsolicited bids. It also has agents who will try to contact the owner of a home that someone wants to buy, even if there is no information about the house on the Web site. But it's a clever idea that I suspect will catch on.
Into this same category of novel ideas that might just as easily flop, I would also put the consumer bartering sites that have launched in recent months. WebSwap.com came touting its new system for helping people make cash-free exchanges of their unwanted used stuff for something that other folks want to trade. A computerized matching system pairs people's "haves" with their "wants" and can negotiate three-way swaps, too.
Of course, there's no way to be sure which of the more than 80 new technologies on display are likely to win favor with consumers. But here are a few I suspect you'll hear more about:
The Kerbango Internet Radio is a small blue box with a tuning knob that you turn to listen to one of the Internet's 4,000 streaming audio channels. Its channel buttons also work like radio station pre-sets. Expected to sell for under $300 when it hits stores this spring, the Kerbango radio has an online tuning network behind it that is a giant database. It updates information on Net audio broadcasts twice an hour. Unlike regular radios, you can talk back to this one, because it's online. You press a little yellow button to get information on a song you're listening to or to buy the CD.
The iRad Internet stereo from AudioRamp.com is bigger than the Kerbango and looks like a mini-stereo system. In addition to playing streaming audio from the Net, it stores and plays more than 1,000 songs through an internal software playlist manager. You can hook up other music devices such as MP3 players or desktop computers. The iRad also will come in a rack form – a slim rectangular box resembling a stereo receiver – so you can attach it to your existing stereo system. Both versions will be released in two months for $399.
The StoryBox picture frame is expected be in a similar price range when it is released this summer – $299 for the device, plus a monthly service fee of $5 to $7. That's for access to the StoryBox online network, which manages the photos and other information that people view in the wooden frame. The frame has a liquid crystal display screen for showing color photos, a modem for sending and receiving images, and a card reader that lets people enter images directly from their digital cameras. Its inventors imagine people using it to share photos with distant loved ones who also have a StoryBox sitting on their coffee tables. But I can imagine waking up to see headlines from my favorite newspapers displayed in the frame on my bedside table.
PrestoTags and Presto pads are part of a new technology emerging from the MIT Media Lab that could become as prevalent in m-commerce (that means mobile commerce, a new buzzword Netheads are using these days) as product bar codes are in the retail industry. The system embeds radio frequency chips in objects – such as a credit card, key chain or business card – which people wave in front of a special reader. The tag emits a signal that identifies the person, who can quickly buy something and be billed. Credit-card companies and banks are testing it now.
Leslie Walker's e-mail address is email@example.com
© 2000 The Washington Post Company