Dealmaking 101

National | Making an e-deal on education, taking handheld computing to a new level, and nabbing cybercrooks

Issue: "Can the boom last?," Oct. 16, 1999

Bidding for a degree
How much would you bid for a college diploma? In the latest wrinkle in the never-ending story of online auctions, a new site lets students send financial "bids" to colleges willing to offer discounted tuition. "Going to college is smart," proclaims eCollegebid.org. "Paying too much is not." Its Falls Church, Va.-based founders are lining up schools willing to participate in the plan, which lets students submit the amount they're willing to pay, just like someone might bid for Beanie Babies, Barbie dolls, or Ginsu knives. So far, the schools that have signed up are unknowns. "They are mostly private colleges that are not 'household names' and do not often make the 'rankings' found in the popular media," admits the site. You can't get to Harvard or Columbia or even the University of Washington from this website. Site founder Tedd Kelly won't name the schools he's signed up, but says the service has fewer than a dozen right now. The idea is intriguing, but eCollegebid.org merely offers the scraps of academia: obscure schools burning off leftover seats to leftover students, those with SAT scores between 800 and 1,000 and grade-point averages between 2.5 and 2.9. Hapless bidders aren't even told the identity of a potential school until their bid is accepted. Go, go gadget
Jeff Hawkins, Donna Dubinsky, and Ed Colligan launched the handheld computing revolution at 3Com by developing Palm Computing. Now they've broken off and formed their own company with a new gadget called the Visor that could turn the industry upside down once again. What is it? Visor is a Palm Pilot-like pocket computer than runs the same operating system as typical Palms, but it is expandable. By buying a module, users can add features to their handhelds, such as audio players, cameras, and wireless modems-just as users might pop new games into a Nintendo machine. Like many other devices, the Visor can plug into a PC or Mac via a USB (universal serial bus) connection. The device will be released this month and will sell for $149-$249, depending on the model. To make sure products are made for the Visor, Handspring is giving away a developers' kit that explains its specifications. Already-announced add-ons include a full-size keyboard, collections of electronic books, and pagers. A development like this could push handhelds further into the mainstream as more than just glorified Franklin Planners for businessmen (see WORLD, Sept. 25). Handhelds are becoming simpler, more customizable, and more popular. The launch of Visor means the day is coming closer when tiny devices (instead of bulky desktop machines) will perform more and more computing functions. Fighting computer crime with computers
Tucked away in a secret location somewhere in the United States is the banking industry's new weapon against computer crime. According to the Treasury Department, the government quietly built a $1.5 million private computer network so institutions could tip one another off about bad software, crooked employees, and online thieves. "New threats call for new types of solutions," said Treasury Secretary Lawrence Summers. Only about six people know the location of The Financial Services Information Sharing and Analysis Center. This is the first of several secret projects to grow out of an order by President Clinton to beef up security against cyber crime. The White House is building its own system to protect non-military computers. Other industries plugging in include electricity, water, telecommunications, and oil. Joining the banking system costs members between $13,000 and $125,000. Once inside, members can anonymously trade tips with one another. So far the membership list includes 16 financial institutions (including Merrill Lynch, Bank of America, and J.P. Morgan) holding $4.5 trillion in assets, but more are coming. Not only are the users' identities kept hidden, they are also forbidden to disclose private information about customers. The system is a shadowy experiment where people anonymously pass information to one another. Will all this help stop criminals, or will it be an expensive computer bulletin board? Will the bad guys find ways to sneak in? The U.S. government claims that the Feds won't be sneaking around eavesdropping on the conversation, though the FBI's National Infrastructure Protection Center will give tips on the latest security problems. "If they choose to give information to the government, that's nice," said Richard Clarke of the National Security Council. "The government, however, will share information with them ... both classified and nonclassified information."

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