E-cars and e-cash

National | Through e-commerce, Bill Gates can sell automobiles and prisoners can sell art; Sega tries to turn its Japanese nightmare into a U.S. dream; and Swiss bank accounts come to middle America

Issue: "Wedgwood shooting," Oct. 2, 1999

Virtual showroom
Would you buy a used car from Bill Gates? Microsoft is boosting its little-known CarPoint website via a joint venture with Ford. Now buyers can go online for exactly the car they want, including paint, upholstery, and stereo system. Ford can't sell cars directly online, so visitors are directed to a dealer who can sell them their choice car. The deal gives CarPoint an edge that competitors like AutoNation and Autobytel don't have. Microsoft is also busy looking for other automakers with which to make similar deals. The winners on sites like this are auto buyers who have the knowledge and fortitude to jump back and forth among these sites to find exactly the car they want. The impersonality of the computer is a plus since it allows one to dodge manipulative sales tactics. The car shopper loses the ability to kick tires and take a test drive while exploring, yet when he finally arrives at the dealership he will have a better idea of what he's buying. Auto purchases are the ultimate test for online shopping. Ford Escorts and Crown Victorias aren't like books and CDs that can be wrapped up and sent to a customer like a traditional mail-order catalog. These are big-ticket items that usually require some physical contact before making the deal. (Even so, there are a few virtual dealerships, such as CarsDirect.com, that let auto buyers go all the way and purchase online). Consumers with the patience and know-how to do their own research can have more control over the price by using a variety of different websites to learn exactly how much it costs dealers to put together the car they want. Armed with this information, they can go to dealers themselves and make them compete with each other to sell them their ideal car. The prison fence
Arthur Shawcross launched himself into online commerce, dealing paintings of Marilyn Monroe and stock-car driver Dale Earnhardt along with other kitsch on the auction site eBay. Now he's sitting in solitary confinement in an upstate New York prison for two years. Why? Arthur Shawcross's claim to fame isn't his art. He's a convicted serial killer who murdered 11 women in Rochester. He's serving a life sentence and is barred from running a business in prison. Now he's being punished, and even his arts-and-crafts privileges have been taken away. The Shawcross incident is the latest in a bizarre series of strange cases surrounding online auctions. It never stops, with people pitching babies, human kidneys, and even cocaine. Several fraud prosecutions have bubbled out of eBay among the thousands and thousands of legitimate auctions carried there. Perhaps the strangest legitimate (but halted) auction was posted by the shopping comparison site Priceman, which tried to auction nearly half of its equity for at least $10 million. Bad publicity hasn't kept that site from being one of the hottest stops on the Net. Yahoo, Amazon.com, and other competitors have entered the territory, but none have come close to eBay's size and success. Several high-tech megapowers, including Microsoft, Dell Computer, and Lycos, are storming the moat with a combo called FairMarketPlace. Someone who posts an auction on one company's site will be listed on all of them. This is a quick way to build up a large population, since bidders want to go where the sellers are and vice versa. Perhaps the reason eBay and its competition receive so much fervor and excitement is because the auction is a microcosm of the Internet itself. It is huge, flashy, and has seemingly everything. It has good deals, bad deals, and deals that will summon the FBI. Like the Net, the auction isn't going away. Its oddity will become customary. Sega gets game
The biggest video-game battle in the world isn't playing on some kid's TV set. A new generation of home consoles is coming to a shopping mall near you, promising the latest in gee-whiz bangs and zip-bam booms. Enter Sega with its new Dreamcast machine, which has been disappointing in Japan but unexpectedly successful over here. The gizmo costs twice as much (about $199) as the entrenched competition from Nintendo and Sony. For the money, gamers receive a 128-bit microprocessor that boasts speeds four times as fast as PlayStation and twice as speedy as the N64. Add to that the first console Internet hookup that will allow players to go head-to-head online. Sega needs the Dreamcast to get back on track, especially since its 1995 Saturn machine bombed, leaving the company with only 1 percent of the U.S. market. So far, company execs are happy because Dreamcast racked up $97 million at launch earlier this month, but Sony is preparing its PlayStation2 that will run both its own software and original PlayStation games. PlayStation2 hits stores in the fall of 1999 and will sell for a whopping $360, which is approaching low-end PC prices. Better sound, better video, and DVD disc games are on the way. Yet compatibility with the 60 million original PlayStations is its major selling point. (Nintendo has its own new generation system coming next month.) Yet what makes a game great isn't the console, but the play. A gorgeous background and a massive color palate can't make a bad game fun. Many $50 wonders are popped into game systems, then tossed aside after a few days. Too much of the industry is focused on better graphics and better sound instead of genuine playability. Expensive games should not have the lifespans of paperback romance novels. Banks without borders
Swiss bank accounts aren't just in the movies-and they're coming to the Internet next month. Geneva-based MFC Merchant Bank starts accepting deposits as low as $5,000 on Oct. 15, much to the chagrin of American bank regulators. The lure of the Swiss bank account is ultimate privacy, which has the feds worried. On the Internet, a person's savings could be held down the street, in Switzerland, or in outer space-as long as they are accessible by computer. The accounts are perfectly legal, as long as they're reported to the IRS. The trouble for the tax man is that overseas banks aren't always as cooperative with investigations as domestic ones. MFC vice president Peter Jessop told USA Today that his bank won't give the IRS "details on our clients unless our clients ask us to." MFC, which is under Switzerland's legendary secrecy laws, isn't on the federal government's good side. "It raises difficult new issues that are going to have to be resolved," said Oliver Ireland, associate general counsel of the U.S. Federal Reserve. The Securities and Exchange Commission refuses to allow Americans to trade securities through online accounts. Since the Net has popularized stock trades, strong encryption, and auction houses, could it bring cheap Swiss bank accounts to middle America? Cyberspace is constructed to connect customers and businesses, so something like this was bound to show up eventually. Conventional banks are already offering online services to customers, and branchless Internet-only institutions are popping up. MFC's move is the opposite of the usual global Internet trend that brings American products and customs abroad. If Swiss accounts become popular, might revolutionary bank privacy laws come to America?

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