By Leslie Walker
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, June 10, 1999; Page E1
"Good morning, Leslie. Time to boot up."
The voice was robotic, hardly the tender sound you might want to summon you from pleasant dreams at 6:40 a.m.
But the robot was simply doing what he was told. I had surfed to his Web site the day before and ordered up a series of wake-up calls to my home. Mr.Wakeup.com obliged, telephoning me and, using a computer synthesized voice, reading the precise text message that I had typed at its Web site. The service cost me nothing; the trade-off was listening to a cheery, recorded human voice deliver a five-second commercial: "This call is courtesy of celebritysightings.com."
Mr.Wakeup.com is among the thousands of services sprouting across the global computer network at a rate so fast that nobody can keep track of them, much less investigate their reliability. The services cover every imaginable aspect of your work, home and social life.
In a U.S. economy that is nearly three-quarters services, it seems the whole darn service sector is rushing to reach customers on the Internet. Leading the way are companies that didn't exist a year ago and like so many other Web ventures, they're losing money heavily. But before the invisible hand thins the field, why not go out and do some sampling? The diversity will amaze you.
When you're too tired to cook, Food.com lets you scroll through menus from local restaurants and have dinner delivered to your door. IShip.com helps you compare prices and track delivery of, say, fresh salmon coming in from Seattle or a new desk arriving from Texas.
Trip.com's flight tracker will monitor your spouse's flight and notify you of delays, sending three free e-mail notifications of the arrival time for any domestic U.S. flight. Lifeminders.com will send not one, but two e-mail reminders for tasks you deem important, such as an oil-change for your car.
GiftCertificates.com offers printed gift certificates delivered by snail mail, and next week plans to add quick e-mail "supercertificates" that people can swap for printed certificates at 60 participating merchants.
There are even more Web-based services aimed at businesses. Some are free, but more charge fees. ICopyright.com wants to make it easy for people to obtain permission and pay any fees to reuse copyrighted material. IPrint.com wants to relieve you of printing worries.
It's reached the point that Hewlett-Packard Co. could announce a plan a few weeks ago to create a new online software technology aimed solely at helping us make sense of this jungle. Dubbed "e-speak," it's meant to help consumers and businesses locate and evaluate Web-based services.
Consumers are indeed bewildered. No sooner do they get the hang of one new service than a slightly improved version appears from a competitor. I spent several days two months ago checking out free faxing services online, only to watch them evolve rapidly since then. Competitors are adding features in an apparent bid to create new Webtop platforms that mimic the desktop metaphor pioneered by Apple Computer Inc.'s Macintosh and popularized by Microsoft Corp.'s Windows.
In addition to free e-mail and calendars, services include free online storage of your Web "bookmarks," (Mybookmarks.com and OneView.com) as well as a bunch of online file storage and backup services (Internetfilezone.com and Freedrive.com).
Several new companies OneBox.com, Ureach.com, TeleBot.com and Jfax.com are trying to unify these many services and add telephone voice mail and paging to create so-called "unified in-boxes."
When I spent time with Ureach.com this week, I quickly realized how convenient it felt to have various personal computing features in one spot online. I had used the Web's stand-alone bookmark services before and was glad to see them incorporated into Ureach.
The Web site instantly assigned me my own toll-free telephone number, and within a few minutes was converting incoming voice and fax messages to e-mails, then dumping the incoming messages in the same box.
Not without glitches. I couldn't seem to get incoming faxes to appear anywhere, although my voice mails appeared instantly. The support desk returned my call but couldn't figure out the problem. Still, I found I liked clicking on voice messages just as I would an e-mail, and having my friend's voice suddenly blaring through my computer speakers, even if it was admonishing me about the perils of workaholism.
Mr.Wakeup.com, oddly enough, started last April with a similar notion about offering unified messaging. But it shelved its broader plan after evaluating the positive reaction from investors, advertisers and consumers to one piece of the package the time-sensitive telephone calling technology it calls "ring-blaster."
Already, co-founder Darryl Shepherd said people are ordering meeting reminder (and even wake-up calls) calls to their desks in the middle of the afternoon; others are scheduling calls reminding them to take medication. Mr.Wakeup.com is in business talks with other Web messaging services to plug its call-notification system into their sites.
That's how Internet services develop, like some gigantic self-stitching quilt of all colors and fabrics.
And I guess it should make me nervous to discover that Mr.Wakeup.com has all of four full-time employees. Is it going to come through with that wake-up call on those really crucial days?
But somehow I'm not worried. On the Internet, many great ideas are nurtured to maturity by tiny teams. And in the meantime, I'm keeping my alarm clock.
Leslie Walker's e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company