A Clue...to Internet Commerce

by Dana Blankenhorn

Volume II, No. III

For the Week of January 19, 1998

This Week's Clue: Song in the Key of Spam

SSP (Shameless Self-Promotion)

More On VRML

The Parent Trap

Thoughts From Deep Blue

Clued-in, Clueless

This Week's Clue: Song in the Key of Spam

AOL is not part of the Internet. It's an online service. But its Internet connections and claims of Internet connectivity confuse many, especially spammers and the media.

As a private online service, AOL has the legal right to sell "spamming rights" to anyone and to spam people on its own, which they do, by the way, unmercifully. Their service is the content, not the communication, and they own your mailbox. The recourse of "victims" is to drop the service, because the legal situation elsewhere is different. For instance, I buy Internet connection services from AT&T. They don't own my mailbox. They can't sell access to it, and by the same token it's my responsibility, not theirs, to keep spammers out of it.

All this is by way of introduction to a mystery that flowed across my screen last week. One of our Web hosts, Tommy Bass, recently got a spam message from someone identifying herself as "cindy," and decided to trace its source. The message was routed through at least two e-mail servers in Greece, but a little Unix hacking revealed the actual sender was an address called auto@cars.com. E-mails sent to that address bounced-back.

Tommy used some other Unix commands and found the e-mail was also routed through a number of BellAtlantic servers. But the cars.com domain itself , he learned, is owned by hyperSystems Inc. in Greenwood Village, Colorado - the site itself is still under construction. The billing contact for hyperSystems was an Atlanta number that didn't answer, but the administrative contact - the power behind the throne we assumed - turned out to be a Lenard Lynch at the Tribune Co., owners of the Chicago Tribune. A call placed to Mr. Lynch by me wasn't returned.

Late Wednesday, however, we got a note from Mr. Bill Batt of Chicago. He identified himself as manager of information services for ClassifiedVentures, which he said is the "real owner" of Cars.Com. (Presumably hyperSystems is another ClassifiedVentures subsidiary.) Mr. Batt said his company was, in fact, the victim in all this, adding that the firm is owned jointly by Tribune Co, Times Mirror and the Washington Post.

The answer to this mystery may be at the bottom of a story reported by ZDNet in December, whose headline was the expansion of BarnesandNoble's relationship with AOL. It turns out AOL has agreed to "promote" Cars.Com in a two year "multi-million" dollar deal, which presumably may include e-mail (spam) rights against AOL members. The site, due to launch this month, will combine the papers' auto classifieds with reviews, price comparisons, a finance calculating utility and advice. There's nothing special in the site's description except the people involved.

What Clues emerge from all this? Let's look at some other headlines. Yahoo Online, the joint-venture announced last week between MCI and Yahoo, is described as an online service a la AOL, not an Internet offering. Other ISPs have been making deals with Snap, Planet Direct and others to "lock-in" their consumers' mailboxes to a default URL supplying AOL-like services, including "personalization" services that can lead to highly-targeted marketing e-mails, i.e. spam. In other words, AOL's legal advantages have been seen and noticed by its rivals. Big-time marketers will now try to use this loophole to treat consumer users of Internet services as captive markets. But consumers are not sheep. Anyone can get a Clue...and the "sharpies" trying to exploit the AOL loophole will, like other spammers, learn that in time.

SSP (Shameless Self-Promotion)

You're too kind, really. Thank you very much. CoolTool is just the latest outlet to admit we work hard to give you the best coverage possible of Internet Commerce. So here's the deal. John Audette will soon host the e-mail editions of A Clue, and we hope you'll join the discussion and help us build a digest of Clues we can share. (The Web version stays with Sean Cafferky and Tommy Bass.) Our present estimate for the hand-over is February 1. To pay for all this, we'll add a weekly, tracked ad (http://www.adniche.com). I figure on calling it shameless promotion, running along this SSP we've always done. The theory is you first provide service - real newspapers don't put ads above the fold.

Still, it's Journalism -- checking the news, calling people, listening carefully, writing on deadline -- which keeps the Clues coming, although I also handle consulting and commercial writing (ask about those rates via e-mail). If you're looking for excellent work, as found in Atlanta Computer Currents , on Access Atlanta or Net Marketing magazine and Internet & Electronic Commerce Strategies don't wait for the e-mail -- give me a call at 404-373-7634.

And now back to our show...

More On VRML

Long-time journalist Tony Bove recently went legit and joined Newfire, a VRML software outfit, where his informal title is "doctor of documentation." When he read our piece on VRML last week he Clued-me in on where the technology's going.

It's going off the Web. Newfire's latest offering is a scene assembly and game production tool called Catalyst, aimed mainly at CD-ROM game developers. "VRML was castigated by the press and analysts who listened to the programmers who said that VRML engines sucked," he writes, and we were right. "They do suck - especially the ones that are 'standard' and supplied with Internet Explorer and Netscape."

He continues, "The Clue is... VRML and VRML engines are two different things. VRML can be useful as a standard way to describe scenes; in this capacity it is more like a "file format" than a technology," like TIFF is a file format for desktop publishing. He adds, "I see no future for the bundled VRML plug-ins as they are too generic to be fast enough for playing immersible 3D gameworlds. But I see plenty of future for VRML as a way of describing 3D textured geometry in space."

So what comes next? Perhaps a standard 3D layout format, like Adobe Acrobat, he suggests, something that would allow the transfer of VRML files. While the effort to create such a 2D format eventually failed (Quark and PageMaker, which use proprietary formats, were too strong), one cool idea did emerge from that effort - the structured document in the form of SGML. Its little bastard now gives you A Clue...and much, much more.

The Parent Trap

Over the last week I've been checking out the large number of parenting Web sites that have lately sprung-up on the Web.

There's a depressing sameness to these sites, depressing because so many seem to have gotten a Clue, at least last year's Clues. Chat and discussion boards are big features, completing the feedback loop. You can get an e-mail newsletter on just about anything, leading me to believe that an increasing part of the bandwidth problem may be a growing newsletter glut.

There are parenting sites backed by huge corporate parents, others with endearing founders' stories. Some are top-heavy with ads, while others seem curiously light. Most interesting, we're starting to see a lot more specialization, which should become more important down the line.

Increasing numbers of niches are going to be hit by this kind of crowding. Dealing with it will take increasing amounts of cash - for content and marketing - and clear ideas on where the money to pay for this will come from. What Clues are there for those in this crowded business?

Here are several:

  • A surprising number of major publishers have yet to make a play here - and I think that kind of affiliation can guarantee a future. Let the dancing begin on publisher's row!
  • Those who feel there's only room for one or two or three such sites are confusing technology with content. It's more important right now to find a profitable business model, no matter the size of your audience.
  • If you're going to be a store, make sure you're a credible one - locking-in a single brand limits you to that brand's fans.
  • Finally, think about your place on their list, not just their place on your list -- everything you e-mail should have real editorial value.

Thoughts From Deep Blue

Subscriber Jonathan Peterson is a technical director at IBM Interactive Media, the under-rated Web design shop. His thoughts on this whole advertising-supported Web thing should be of interest.

"While there are few buyers, there are fewer good sellers," he writes. "CNN Interactive uses an international sales force of 300 cable sales people to sell banner ads. What other web sites have more than a dozen?" This leads Web ad buyers into a real quagmire. "How would Microsoft buy banner ads on Washington DC's 20 most popular websites? Painfully, by hand..." Subscription revenues, he adds, are only valid if you're offering a searchable morgue and a closely monitored interactive forum for the money.

One final point. The place for VRML is in banners, Peterson thinks, combined with a Java applet. "Home Depot could create a VRML app that allows me to create a deck with drag and drop features (stairs, railings, etc), calculating board feet, footers, etc, and generating a purchase order for my local Home Depot. That'd be cool." Without service, in other words, an ad is just an ad. But a good application is a sale.

Clued-in, Clueless

Clued-in is Relevant Knowledge, an Atlanta company which has brought specificity to the problem of Web ratings. Its December numbers showed exactly why Geocities and Hotmail drew fast merger partners, and they've blown New York-based Media Matrix out of the water, proving some markets are more liquid than others.

Clueless is Steve Forbes, for his claim that posting campaign contributions to Web sites will then allow political offices, including the Presidency, to go up for bids. Politics is our brake on market forces, the only thing that keeps popular discontent from turning violent. Steve, the revolution won't be televised.


A Clue...to Internet Commerce is a weekly publication of @Have Modem, Will Travel. It's sent free to a qualified e-mail list. 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 mailto:Dana.Blankenhorn@ att.net. We're on the Web at http://www.tbass.com/clue and http://www.ppn.org/clue.