A Clue..to Internet Commerce

by Dana Blankenhorn

For the Week of May 19, 1997

Volume 1, No. XII

This Week's Clue: E-Mail Clients

Junk mail is something addressed to you but meant for someone else. Despite all the justified hoopla over "spam," e-mail is and will remain an important business tool. Prospects want your reply to notes left on your Web site. You want to share e-mail with folks in your business. Regular e-mails to a select customer list are becoming increasingly common.

So what format do you send them in? A Clue is offered in two -- .htm and .txt. The former is a simple HTML file, with a background color, links and mailtos hidden from view. (No graphics, no photos, no ads.) The .txt version shows these links, in parentheses, and the links become live in new e-mail packages like Netscape 3.0.

According to those I talked to for a coming feature, the .txt should be your default, with .htm files offered to those who request it. (That's the opposite of what we do here, but sources assured me y'all are just highly advanced.) While the next versions of Netscape and Microsoft Intenet Explorer will include e-mail clients which read .htm, the upgrade cycles are getting longer, Netscape's having to extend the beta cycle on Communicator, and Microsoft Outlook stinks. (Too closely tied to Microsoft Exchange, sources say.) More important, most business users are still on LAN or mainframe e-mail systems, not Internet mail packages. Software like cc:Mail still holds many advantages for people running hundreds or thousands of clients, and that's not changing as fast as you think.

The bottom line? Offer .htm, and measure who takes it. Consider your audience -- if your e-mails are going to corporate mail systems, .htm probably won't work well. Multiple formats aren't hard to offer -- takes me an hour to code and check these issues. Switch your Clue subscriptions to .txt if you prefer it. (We offer that service at the bottom of each issue, but I guess it's not explicit-enough for y'all.) Soon, we'll be talking about mailing-list management, and hope y'all can contribute to that discussion.

SSP (Shameless Self-Promotion)

Journalism -- checking the news, calling people, listening carefully, writing on deadline -- is how I keep these clues coming, although I also handle consulting and commercial writing (ask about those rates via e-mail). Right now I'm looking for a daily gig to complement my monthly work for Atlanta Computer Currents , and weekly work for AccessAtlanta.

Special offer. For $200, @Have Modem, Will Travel will examine any site and advise you on whether it's clued-in or clueless, as well as offering ideas for improvements. We call it the "Clued-in Tune-up." Now back to the show...

Phone Fees: Half-empty or Half-full?

There was an amazing diversity of opinions recently when the FCC announced its long-distance access charge plans. No per-minute Internet fees were imposed, but the monthly charge for multiple lines was increased, as was the per-line charge local carriers can impose on long-distance carriers. The new fees will pay to link schools to the Net. Since per-minute access charges for long distance will be cut, commissioners claim most people will see lower phone bills.

Most. Not Internet Service Providers. Much WAGOT (wailing-and-gnashing-of-teeth followed this realization, but it's misplaced. The money's going into the Net, after all. Wireless alternatives for network access, and "IP dialtone," will replace modems over time, and these fees will accelerate a welcome move. Besides, there are lots of ways to get more from your online time, starting with combining modem signals through devices like Ramp Networks' WebRamp M3 . (And what's really wrong with hanging up the phone once in a while?)

Some ISPs will be hurt, just as some are hurt by UUNet (and soon others) reducing peering relationships to real peers. But in both cases, there are alternatives -- in the case of peering there are 24 backbone operators, most with "diversified T-3 backbones," and enough small fry to create another half-dozen as co-ops. Net-net, all this puts the Internet on a sounder basis, over time. Thumbs-up from here.

Has AOL Lost Its Mind?

That's the question asked by Michael Dortch recently, as he detailed an America Online plan to rid itself of small information providers by heaping new charges on them.

No, they haven't lost their minds. They're just like many other Big Media companies which think "Big Numbers" are all that count. AOL's strategy is based, as they've said, on "branding," ignoring online realities in favor of massive ad campaigns. A few people, like Dr. Andrew Weil, are making big money off this trend, switching their content between Web sites for big bucks and bigger publicity.

What's really happening? Mass media companies can't live with the kinds of volumes generated by the average Web site, nor can they afford the hand-holding and personal attention offered by the people who run such sites. Thus, anything which proves itself capable of delivering big, big numbers can draw big, big bids from big, big companies which feel this solves their big, big problems.

But does it? Big Media thinks people will stop surfing and start settling Real Soon Now. All they have to do is line up the right networks, the right talent, the right push technology and voila! -- no more troubles from that nasty Internet, and its pesky entrepreneurs. The current, growing high-tech recession (Amazon.com has trouble getting its IPO done, Nets Inc. goes under, PC makers like Micron are reporting bad results, and the CD-ROM business has disappeared) will convince many in the media this is a permanent situation, that consolidation and rule from above are about to become a permanent feature of the online world. Don't be fooled.

Big names and big audiences don't deliver big value because it's not personalized. Personalization is the key to Internet success. So there's a word for this Big Media thinking, and you know what it is. Word-up to Big Media -- there is no way to guarantee tomorrow online -- and we'll prove it once the lending windows re-open.

Clued-in, Clueless

Clued-in, but barely, is the Better Business Bureau . They waited almost too-long to get into a market they own, rating Web sites for their honesty. Now they have competition ...lots and lots of competition. Fortunately, their brand name -- and their non-profit, non-partisan status -- should see them through. If they follow properly on their good start. This is a market which can still be lost.

Clueless, so far, is Barnes & Noble , which opened its Web site last week with great fanfare...no coincidence it was just before rival Amazon.Com went public. (The idiots even sued Amazon over its claim of being "Earth's biggest bookstore" -- B&N's site claims it's the "world's largest bookseller online".) Amazon needs capital to fight the challenge, not only from B&N but a host of other rivals which haven taken its own "associates" plan and offered Web sites a better deal. Forget the weaknesses of the B&N site (don't get me started on that), here's a Big Clue -- B&N has to charge sales-tax. And survival of big bookstores means there's a huge opportunity here for smaller, specialty shops -- mystery shops, sci-fi shops, rare book shops, etc....shops which offer personalization.

A Clue...to Internet Commerce is a weekly publication of @Have Modem, Will Travel. It's sent free to a qualified e-mail list. Like Netscape Navigator, it carries a list price -- $49 per year. Subscribers can receive either a .txt file or an .htm file. The .htm version features links which become active when online with a browser, or an e-mail package like Netscape 3.0. (Let us know which you prefer.) To take your name off the list, simply write REMOVE as the subject, or content, of a message replying to this post. To request your free copy, write us at Dana Blankenhorn@worldnet.att.net. We're on the Web at www.tbass.com/clue and www.ppn.org/clue .

A Clue...to Internet Commerce -- Copyright @Have Modem, Will Travel and Dana Blankenhorn, 1997