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Copyright 2001 John Zipperer. 

From Internet World:

Internet Whirl
E-Business Rediscovers Unions

By John Zipperer

(12/20/00) As with most subjects, it took "The Simpsons" to best sum up people's overblown assumptions about technology's power. With the Springfield children snowed in at school, the parents watch the TV news reports:

Marge Simpson, "How will the kids get home?" Homer Simpson, "I don't know. The Internet?"

A similar sense of Homeresque ignorance is expressed by a depressing number of tech-industry workers when it comes to an issue creeping into the news lately -- unionization efforts at e-businesses. Too many people have bought into the idea that the Internet simply changed so much of the economy that icky old things like labor-management disputes become a thing of the past. So what does that mean for the customer service employees at two online retailers, Amazon.com and Etown, who are trying to organize unions?

This has spawned a number of articles in the media pondering the degree to which dot-coms are being unionized and what that may mean for the future of this sector of the economy. What's strange is that this is being treated as something new, when in fact it's the same old question of whether employees believe they are being unfairly treated by their employers. The answer may be Yes or No depending on the circumstances, but to believe that the Internet simply whisks us all away to a capitalist nirvana with no labor issues is certainly naive. The reality is that many more e-business CEOs than those at Amazon and Etown will have to deal with this concern.

Actually, it's rather disturbing to read an online forum at Slashdot.org in which tech employees are discussing unions and throwing around such Darwinian statements as "if you can't survive without a union, you're obviously too untalented to do any worthwhile job." A lot of rejoinders follow about the horrors of working for Microsoft and other tech companies, the ridiculously long hours, and the allegedly shoddy treatment by superiors. (There also was a rather amusing digression about cooking with microwaves, but that's another issue.)

One gets the feeling that some of these programmers, often starting at $50,000 a year or more, might want to talk with a professional sports union about representation. Such folks have a similar disconnect about union necessity. People at the programmer level are probably headed more toward a guild model, in which they try to regulate competition out of their field -- something that will be more tempting in the event of a real recession that creates a glut of highly skilled tech workers.

But the forum discussions and press analysts who are focusing on the privileged tech elite are simply off base. The people being targeted by unions are not pulling in $50,000 and sitting on stock investments; they're answering phones and responding to customer e-mail messages and even handling some Web site updating, as more of that is brought down to a FrontPage, or other non-expert, level. In other words, these are the people who are increasingly your company's frontline representatives to your customers. Just how disgruntled you want these people to be may play a big role in your e-business's survival.

We have to understand that, or we'll all end up sounding like Homer Simpson.

Internet Whirl 
It's Beginning to Look a Lot Like Desperation
By John Zipperer

(12/13/00) Companies that are having problems with their basic business strategy have been eyeing their customer database information as a possible salvation, and that worries those of us concerned about privacy. The message seems to be that if your stock price tumbles and your CEO is asked pesky questions by Wall Street analysts like "Can you make money?" then you can silently change your policy about sharing customer data -- you post it somewhere out of the way on your Web site -- and bingo, you've discovered another revenue source.

It's bad enough that it's happening with all kinds of dot-com startups, but when it happens to a venerable distribution firm known the world over, it's really disturbing. So when the PR firm repping Santa Claus called asking to meet with me to discuss its "repositioning" in the marketplace, I jumped at the chance.

Santa, still reeling from the drop in value of his company's shares following its ill-timed IPO this past April, looked a bit haggard, but he gamely jumped right into discussing the problems and opportunities involved in taking a precapitalist company into the Internet age.

One of his biggest problems is with the company name: fatguywithtoys.com. Though it meets my main naming criteria of describing the business, it has nothing to set it aside from the many large men selling products on the streets of any large city. Claus acknowledged this with a sad shrug; the best names were already taken by everything from cybersquatters to toy stores to adult sites, he told me.

Worse, he has stiff competition from flashy competitors like Toys R Us and the Amazon service. Though he grumbles that "they charge MONEY for their toys," that does nothing to address the lack of a viable business model for his company. Giving away toys is not going to bring in enough revenue to feed his large belly, to say nothing of his aging reindeer fleet and all those now-unionized elves. But a poor business model doesn't seem like an excuse to sell out your customers.

So where next for an old-line distribution effort like Santa's? One word: marketing. "No one has a more comprehensive database of the addresses and product categories coveted by children around the world than I do," Claus announced, his hands flat on the table as he leaned across to make his point.

I suggested that many people would think he was abusing his position by letting other companies get his customer's information. But he mumbled something about his compliance with U.S. and E.U. regulations on privacy and a little more clearly stressed that anyone who wants to opt out can simply join a religion that frowns upon admitting strangers to your house on Christmas Eve.

I had to agree. After all, if you let some guy climb down your chimney in the middle of the night, you couldn't really be too upset if he left some advertising leaflets.

Introducing the New Honda Verizon 
By John Zipperer

(12/6/00) I think Kentucky Fried Chicken started it all. Years ago, in a mistaken belief that it was running out of letters of the alphabet, the venerable chicken chain shrank its name to KFC. It was joined by many other companies who transformed names that actually meant something into soulless initials. I for one don't know what a single letter in ABN AMRO stands for.

Though that earlier round of name changes was often a result of deeply felt corporate restructurings, in the Internet business world we are now seeing a rash of name changes that often amount to senseless corporate tweaking. In many instances the changes make a good name bad; in a few, a bad name is made even worse. E-businesses seem to be making several basic mistakes when they change their corporate identity or spin off a product:

Auto-derivatives: The biggest problem is that people are trying to be too clever. For example, NewsAlert is a Manhattan-based company that syndicates news for sites, mostly in the financial services arena. It's a good company; I've met its officers, toured its offices, and heard its aggressive business plan. Yet nothing I know about the company springs to mind when I hear its new corporate name: Inlumen. It sounds like a car name. NewsAlert/Inlumen isn't alone. E-commerce software company OpenSales recently changed its name to Zelerate. The company's president and CEO, Bonnie Crater, claimed in an announcement that "the name Zelerate reflects our accelerated approach to developing and supplying e-commerce applications." No, it doesn't. It sounds like the new Hyundai.

It sounded good at the time: Accompany, a Web group-buying company, changed its name to Mobshop. A hip and cool name, but one that also sounds like it was named by a bunch of college kids after one too many viewings of "Sopranos." This fits into a genre of names I think of as being cause for embarrassment when the companies' employees turn 40 years old.

Good to bad: Andersen Consulting, which should know better, recently changed its name to Accenture. This was part of something the company termed "brandstorming," in which employees were asked to submit names as part of an effort at rebranding. Now, Andersen Consulting is one of the most respected names in, um, consulting. It's even part of the name (a key strength, that). So the best that tens of thousands of employees could do was Accenture, which could be a car or a software company or a euphemism for corporate downsizing. This failure to achieve clarity is particularly surprising in light of Andersen's recent report "Beyond the Blur: Correcting the Vision of Internet Brands," in which the company takes to task Web companies that spend more time on branding and image than on delivering good service.

Others besides Andersen avoid perfectly good names. Bell South's wireless joint venture with SBC is called Cingular. Why the spelling? Why the word? With both Bell South and SBC being huge communications names, it takes a great lapse of common sense to come up with a different name that has to be -- forgive the term -- rebranded all over again.

Not clear before, still not clear: Denmark-based Belle Systems, a provider of services to telecommunications companies and service providers, changed its name to Digiquant, which CEO Erik Froberg said taps into two attributes: the DIGItal economy, and a QUANtum leap forward. Resonant Commerce at least had "commerce" in its name before it changed to the odd Optivo Corp.

Luckily, there are some good company name developments out there. Last year we gave About.com an award to recognize its successful name change from the Mining Company. Hollywood.com sensibly changed its name to Hollywood Media Corp. to reflect its varied entertainment services beyond its Web site. Print on the Net made what I consider a lateral name change to NexPub. And to show that creativity can still flourish, IDG Books Worldwide adopted the name of an online marketplace it acquired, going by the new name of HungryMinds.com.

(Internet Whirl is a weekly column written by John Zipperer, associate managing editor of Internet World magazine. It appears every Wednesday.)

Fandom Hunts for B2C Gold in Old Media 
By John Zipperer

(11/29/00) In the wake of the washout of consumer sites this year, many a B2C company has been reborn in the B2B space, chalking up previous consumer activity as a youthful indiscretion. But there are always exceptions. One such exception jumped out at me in the recent announcement that Fandom had completed its purchase of Cinescape. Fandom is not just B2C, it's B2F -- business-to-fan, in this case, catering and selling to fans of science fiction, horror, comics, and other entertainment genres.

Built as a community of fan-oriented sites -- many created by and acquired from fans like 13-year-old Kate Cheney, who created a Harry Potter site bought by Fandom in July -- Fandom is using the purchase of Cinescape to give it a professional news service and a presence in the newsstand world of print magazines. It's all part of what CEO Mark Young called extending the fan experience: "It's really about how the consumers consume the entertainment, and they consume it in a variety of ways" -- online and offline.

Fandom.com, which features advertising and online sales of genre-related merchandise, may sound to some as if it's playing in too-narrow a niche, but that targeted audience may be the reason it's still around and acquiring companies while many others in the B2C field have kicked off. But then it's run by Young, whose past includes taking a biotechnology company public, earning an MBA from Harvard Business School, and working in investment banking at Salomon Brothers and Morgan Stanley.

That background may not sound like he's a natural for communicating to geeks like me who grew up on sci-fi films and fiction by Harlan Ellison, Ted Sturgeon, and others. But then his role is to keep his company in a growth mode, and he's doing that.

According to Young, people seeking information are looking for feature articles, news, and gossip. His fan-created sites provide the gossip and some of the feature articles; but Cinescape is his source for news.

Cinescape is actually a package of things. It is Cinescape magazine, a bimonthly print publication devoted to films and television in the science fiction, horror, and action genres. It is Cinescape.com, a Web site known primarily for its daily news feed. It is Wicked, a quarterly magazine devoted to horror entertainment. And it is a series of licensed fan clubs and their official magazines for such television shows as "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" and "Angel."

In the world of science fiction (and related genres), that makes it a pretty big player. In the print field, both Cinescape and Wicked play second fiddle to magazines published by Starlog Group. But unlike the Starlog magazines, Cinescape carved out an early place for itself in the daily news business on the Web, making it a must-see site for the interested fan and professional. In fact, other professional sci-fi news sites regularly quote Cinescape's reports.

Cinescape founder Steve Harris, who sold the property to Fandom for an undisclosed amount, said the leading online position of Cinescape was no accident. "In late 1997, we made a decision to invest the necessary time and effort to build a site that would be updated daily with relevant news and information from as many reliable sources as possible," he noted. "You can't drop the ball once, or you risk losing a piece of your potential audience forever. So we made sure that daily deadlines -- which can sometimes comprise more than two dozen stories -- were always adhered to."

Those deadlines will now become the concern of Fandom's Young, who seems eager to play in this market he's helping to build. "It's in front of a couple of massive trends," he told me, and he can point to the convergence of media channels and the coming-of-age of a generation raised on science fiction. "We're at the center of all this."

(Internet Whirl is a weekly column written by John Zipperer, associate managing editor of Internet World magazine. It appears every Wednesday.)

Internet Whirl:
When a Simple Web Design Will Do Just Fine
By John Zipperer

(11/22/00) Let's take a break from our usual work this week as we prepare for the Thanksgiving holiday, a time when families will gather in their homes, eat a lot, and sit down in front of the television to watch the great American sporting event known as Florida vote-counting.

As you read this, I am probably on my way to upstate New York for my Thanksgiving dinner. That is, I am on my way there if the information I extracted from a couple of bus companies' Web sites turns out to be correct and useful. My information search was impeded by someone trying too hard to design and architect their site.

Two main bus companies, Shortline and Greyhound, serve the route between New York City and my upstate New York destination. The buses run regularly all day, every day, in both directions. That may be basic information, but it seems to have been missed by at least one of the companies.

My preferred bus company for this trip is Shortline because, well, I get to watch a movie on the bus's monitors during the trip. So first I went to that company's site to access the schedule. From the home page, a link takes me to a list of the main routes. After that page loads, I click on the route that includes my desired destination. After a long load time, I get a list of arrival times in Ithaca, but no New York City departure times. For that, I have to click on an associated link to go to another very slow-loading page -- a different link for each departure time I want to check out.

And even that laborious process didn't work without time-outs, frozen browsers, and inventive use of language by me. I tested the site on another computer with a different platform and tried two different browser brands to make sure the problems weren't unique to my little PowerBook and Netscape 6. But I had problems everywhere I tried to access the site.

Then I tried Greyhound's site. Not only was it much quicker, but it managed to be both more comprehensive and simpler. By that I mean that the interactive schedule had many more options than Shortline's, but they were more intuitive and much quicker. The biggest time-saver was that when I chose my destination, I got back a results page that included both departure and arrival times.

One defense of Shortline may be that it is a much smaller company than Greyhound, but here's an instance in which the company's size doesn't matter at all when it comes to serving a customer. All Shortline had to deliver to its Web visitors was a schedule, so there was no need to give me anything that looked interactive or was created on the fly by a server. It would have been more efficient and helpful if it had just provided a matrix of cities served by the bus line and the various departure and arrival times. But instead some Web creator felt the need to go beyond what was necessary.

A company like Shortline just has to give me information on its Web site. It doesn't have to look complex, it doesn't have to be pretty, it doesn't have to entertain. The onboard movies will do that.

(Internet Whirl is a weekly column written by John Zipperer, associate managing editor of Internet World magazine. It appears every Wednesday.)

Internet Whirl:
A Reason for Broadband Fans to Wake Up
By John Zipperer

(11/15/00) What happened to all the money flowing into those hyped dot-coms? Though much of it probably headed to non-Internet investments in reaction to the licking investors have taken this past year, the best news for the economy may be that Internet-related companies with more-rational business plans have been able to get funding.

I'm reminded of this when I meet with a company like Media Station, which completed a successful round of funding in August that attracted $15.2 million from such major communications players as Motorola and Japan's NTT Communications. Other investors included Toppan and Broadwing.

Media Station is not a dot-com, but it plays in an area whose success will make future dot-coms rich. It's a multimedia firm that has been around for a decade producing CD-ROMs; when the Net came calling, the company worked to make its CD-ROMs available over the Internet.

What makes this company attractive for investment? Consider this: It's playing in a hot market (broadband); it has a revenue stream based on subscribers, not fickle Net shoppers; it is using experience gained in CD-ROM creation to bring content to online consumers (so it's not a newbie); and many of its investors are companies directly involved in broadband services, so Media Station's payoff is their payoff.

And broadband is expected to have a big payoff, if only it can start living up to its many promises. "The broadband market is growing almost as fast as people expected," said Media Station CEO and president James P. Maslyn, "but consumer adoption has not been as fast."

The company makes a prediction of decreasing bandwidth, not the explosion of bandwidth being touted by some. "Our view is that bandwidth will become ever tighter, more restricted," said Maslyn. He's referring at least in part to the fact that many of his subscribers will be accessing Media Station's offerings over cable modems, and though that represents an increase in bandwidth above their likely previous 28.8- or 56-Kbps modems, they'll slow down when more cable modem users in their neighborhoods go online.

Media Station has responses to the problems of consumer adoption and customer speed. First, it offers educational, gaming, and other entertainment content in a format familiar to consumers of CD-ROMs. No need to learn a new interface. Second, instead of just expecting all users to access its material by streaming, it offers streaming and download options. (For example, if you're playing a streaming game and congestion is slowing it down, the system will offer you the option of downloading the game to your computer.)

The subscription service, called SelectPlay, is offered to customers of various broadband providers, such as Time Warner Cable and Broadwing. If a user has a broadband connection but SelectPlay is not included in the package, the user can access the service directly from Media Station's own Web site and servers.

(Internet Whirl is a weekly column written by John Zipperer, associate managing editor of Internet World magazine. It appears every Wednesday.)