Features

Guerrilla publishing

National | King's Bullet boosts e-publishing; $5 billion lost in space; the rise of the independent investor; double-digit dialing; and the literal information superhighway

Issue: "Court in the balance," April 1, 2000

The shot heard 'round the Worldwide Web
Riding The Bullet is right. Stephen King last month gave electronic books a big shot toward mainstream acceptance by publishing a novella online. Demand for the 66-page Bullet ghost story sent demand at Amazon.com, Barnesandnoble.com and other outlets through the roof as readers logged on for the new release. Publisher Simon & Schuster reports that visitors placed 400,000 orders for the book in the first 24 hours of its March 14 release. The e-book idea came from King agent Ralph Vicinanza, whose marketing ideas for the author included the serialized release of The Green Mile and an audio-only collection of short stories. He said the new format simplifies the production process and reduces costs. "I don't think that e-books will replace books," he said. "It's a new format that will exist side-by-side with the traditional outlets for bookselling." Bullet is the first of many attempts at making electronic books work. Instead of buying ink and paper, buyers pay for a computer file that can be read on a PC, a special reader, or an electronic organizer. Will consumers accept books meant to be read on a small screen? So far, so good. Will publishers accept a distribution system that could completely change their business model? Only the market will tell. Most "old media" companies have approached "new media" with varying degrees of naivete, fear, and resentment, so they may wind up dragged kicking and screaming by the market into electronic publishing. Where e-books can really be a boost is for the little guy. This will do for books what the Web did for essays and news articles. It lowers the cost of distribution by getting rid of printers, warehouses, and wholesalers. For evangelicals, this means the entire Christian Booksellers Association foodchain can be bypassed entirely. An e-book can simply be ordered and downloaded. When this medium finally takes off, everyone with an idea-from unsung geniuses to utter crackpots-will publish. But good work, savvy business sense, and good guerrilla marketing can pay off. The door is open. Lost in space
Kablooey! One of the most expensive high-tech ventures in history is collapsing. Iridium, a $5 billion global wireless phone project, shut down on March 17. Service to 55,000 customers and a constellation of 66 satellites may be blown to smithereens. The service was backed by Motorola and launched in November 1998 as one of the boldest non-Internet high-tech ventures of the decade. For the first time, one could carry one phone anywhere on the planet and make a call. With expanding world travel and global business deals, Iridium was expected to light a fire in the telecommunications industry. Instead, its satellites may be burning up in Earth's atmosphere as their owners de-orbit them. So what went wrong? Iridium's service was too expensive and its phones were too bulky. To use the global service, one might have shelled out $3,000 per phone and up to $7 per minute for calls. Not many phone calls are worth that kind of money. When initial sales were slow, Iridium slashed prices in a desperate attempt to survive. But it was too late. The company went bankrupt last August, crushed by $4.4 billion of debt. For months the company tried to reorganize, find new investors, and stay alive. Wireless phone wunderkind Craig McCaw tried to jump in and save the company, but eventually gave up. Iridium had no choice but to ask the court for permission to shut off service. "I am deeply saddened by this outcome," said chief operating officer Randy Brouckman. What does this mean? Cool technologies don't always succeed. Anyone who bought computers like the NeXT, the Amiga, or the Apple Newton knows the feeling. High-tech must scratch the right itch at the right time at the right price or it falters. The individual investor and his sell phone
Online stock trading is quickly becoming one of America's favorite investment tools. Sign up with a deep discount Internet broker and pay some of the lowest commissions in history, typically between $7 and $30 per trade. E-trading has spawned an entire subculture of independent investors who plunk down a few thousand dollars, research their own picks, and buy and sell online. But who are these people? Are they crazy daytraders who risk everything on every whim of the market? Or long-term investors who want to see the money grow with the companies they buy? A survey taken in November by the Ameritrade brokerage gives a clearer picture. Traders seem to fit somewhere between the long- and short-term mentalities. They typically buy and sell stock about once a month (13 times per year). Over 80 percent of online investors use a defined investment strategy, according to the study conducted by Roper Starch Worldwide. Most people say their plans include "long-term capital appreciation," which means they want to make money over time. When making an investment, the typical online buyer spends the equivalent of a full working day (7.6 hours on average) studying, researching, and thinking. The Net provides for free stock information previously only available to brokers and analysts. It also means that fast-talking hustlers in chat rooms and bulletin boards can pitch garbage stock to the unwary. So investors must use discernment. Because of all this information flow, investors can make decisions much faster than when they could only check their stocks once in the newspaper. Perhaps this is one reason the bull market has held on so long. Online trading represented over $374 billion in assets in 1999, according to Ameritrade. That number is certain to go up as buying and selling become easier. Ameritrade itself lets some account holders trade over the Net with cell phones. These new stock traders will see some great financial shifts-for better or for worse. Running out of numbers
How many numbers do you dial to phone home? The digits keep growing as more people grab lines for their fax machines, cell phones, pagers, and modems. What used to be seven digits is now eleven in some places and could get longer. To hold back lengthy dialing and constantly splitting area codes, the FCC changed the rules on how phone companies hold unused numbers. Under the old system that dates back decades to the glory days of the Bell System, phone numbers were allocated in lots of 10,000. Even if a company only used 5,000 of them, the rest sat waiting for a population explosion-or were hoarded for future use. Now the FCC will only dole out 1,000 numbers at a time as part of a move to hold back the demand for more area codes. Every change means new dialing instructions, equipment upgrades, and lots of new stationery. It also explains all the scratchouts in your little black book. The next big expansion is planned for April, with two new toll-free area codes: 866 and 855. An industry group called The Alliance for Telecommunications Industry Solutions is testing the two codes for a planned April launch. Getting people to understand that an 888 or 877 call wasn't long distance was hard enough. What may eventually reduce the strain on the phone numbering system is the IP address, which is a set of digits that identify computers on the Internet. More and more of those faxes and pages can be routed over the Net without eating up a phone line. There are also email addresses, which are already used with Internet phone and chat service. Why couldn't that be used to call someone? No matter what happens, the way we reach out and touch someone is changing radically. E-miles
The information superhighway, indeed. Ford is now going to let you surf from inside your car. Some of next year's Lincolns won't have PCs in the dash, but they'll have built-in cell phones that give drivers limited Web access. Essentially, owners get a Motorola StarTAC phone, which looks a bit like the Star Trek phaser, mounted in the car. Through the phone, those willing to pay for Sprint PCS's Wireless Web service will be able to receive news, email, and stock quotes. The whole thing will be voice-activated, so drivers can use it without taking their hands off the wheel. Ford calls such services "telematics." This is basically a gimmick to bring customers to Ford and Sprint, but it shows where technology is heading. GM, whose OnStar service has over 100,000 subscribers, is set to add similar service. First the phone becomes inescapable due to wireless service and the Internet follows. Soon consumers will wonder how they lived without it. Like cable TV, microwaves, and cordless phones, this technology is starting as something for the wealthy few and will expand to everybody. "We expect to offer safety and security telematics services with wireless Internet access to virtually every Ford Motor Company customer in the next several years," Ford vice president Brian Kelley said in a statement. A century ago, people lived their lives with one mechanical reminder following them around: a watch. In a few years, the average Joe will live in a cloud of news headlines, email, and personal calendars. He will never have an excuse for a missed appointment, lost file, or forgotten appointment. All vital information will be in his TV, phone, computer, desk, dashboard, pocket, briefcase, or belt buckle. The scraps of personal seclusion while in the car, walking down the street, or even sleeping are slipping away. Welcome to the future.

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