The continuing dot-com shakeout gives hope to small businesses competing for a place on the Web. A landmark study of 2,000 consumers in the United States by Accenture, formerly Andersen Consulting, and the research firm Online Insight challenges some of the deep-pocket strategies that have made it difficult for smaller sites to get noticed. One of the most startling findings: Price isn't everything. E-commerce companies aren't getting a justifiable return from massive advertising campaigns and glitzy sites loaded with animation; consumers value speed and convenience more than a well-known name or fancy presentation. Finally, the study debunks the notion that cyberspace is only inhabited by the young, pointing out that 51 percent of Web shoppers are over 35.
Never Say Die
Does it take a rocket scientist to make a computer that won't crash all the time? Yes. That's why NASA is partnering with Carnegie Mellon University and an A-list group of high-tech companies -- including Adobe Systems, Compaq Computer, Hewlett-Packard, IBM, Microsoft, and Sun Microsystems -- to form the High Dependability Computing Consortium, or HDCC. The HDCC will be based at NASA's Ames Research Center in Mountain View, Calif., at the heart of Silicon Valley, and will strive to develop tools for making fail-safe software for everything from air-traffic control and health care to highway safety and space exploration. Designing crash-proof software is an elusive goal, however, because it's almost impossible for code writers to anticipate every possible circumstance their programs might encounter -- and it's the unanticipated situations that cause failures.
Wireless Access Protocol, or WAP, is a multi-national effort to create standards for Internet access through mobile phones; Ericsson, Motorola, and Nokia are among its key backers. But using a phone dialpad to laboriously pick out commands in order to see text on a tiny screen just isn't compelling. There are alternatives to WAP, however, that could soon get wireless information and commerce off the ground. Voice-controlled access, where users say commands and listen to a spoken response, is already available from several start-ups such as BeVocal, HeyAnita, and TellMe. NTT DoCoMo is bringing its hugely successful "i-mode" service from Japan to the U.S. through a $10 billion investment in AT&T Wireless, possibly as soon as year-end. It's not clear, however, if i-mode, which offers downloadable tunes and lottery results as well as electronic mail, will travel well -- few consumers in Japan have home computers, making i-mode the only online access for most of its 15 million subscribers.
Now it's Easy Being Green
Recycling old computers is a headache for even socially conscious small businesses, because it's often hard to find groups that will accept outdated hardware. And the problem is huge -- one Federal agency estimates 21 million PCs became obsolete in the U.S. in 1998, but only 11 percent were recycled, with 315 million more PCs due for disposal by 2004. IBM is one of the first big PC makers to take action with an open-ended recycling program. The new program lets PC owners send old systems from any manufacturer to a reprocessing center called Envirocycle Inc. for a flat fee of $30, including shipping. The Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition (www.svtc.org) and the socially-responsible mutual fund firm Pax World Funds (www.paxfund.com/pctips.htm) also provide resources for those striving to be green.
Some Day My DSL Will Come
The waiting is still the hardest part, but it may be getting easier. One of the most cost-effective and quickest ways to gain high-speed Internet access is via a DSL (Digital Subscriber Line) connection, which piggybacks on existing telephone lines and shares them simultaneously with voice and other data. Getting the service hooked up, however, can take a while.
In the past, the problem has been that many of these service providers require different configuration systems customized to their particular equipment. This adds to the time and cost of installation. Now the industry is moving to adopt auto-configuration standards, with the ultimate goal of "plug-and-play" installation of DSL service.
The DSL Forum is a consortium of 380 companies within the industry. It is working to develop a single standard for DSL customer-premises equipment (CPE) to allow any service provider to configure any manufacturer's equipment for their networks. According to John Stephens, chairman of the DSL Forum's CPE Auto-configuration Working Group, once it is adopted the new standard will dramatically speed service activation and delivery.
"Automating the configuration of new DSL devices to produce a standards-based plug-and-play DSL model will eliminate the deployment bottleneck and idling installation trucks. This is a critical hurdle for the DSL industry," says Stephens.
The group hopes to have the first layers of a standard and protocol agreed upon by early 2001. These initial agreements will identify the specific information and data structures needed to support the architecture and firmwear. They will also pinpoint software requirements and security issues.
For beleaguered business owners stuck tapping their toes waiting for the industry to decide, that won't be a moment too soon.