Digital DC

National | Big government a keystroke away; Smith Corona's bankruptcy shows the triumph of the PC; and the record industry goes to war with music software

Issue: "UNbelievable," June 17, 2000

Gore's "information age town hall"
It's not just the government. It's the "e-government." Al Gore is jumping back on the cyberspace bandwagon, advocating an "Information Age town hall" that lets people access Social Security benefits and other federal services by 2003. "The power of government should not be locked away in Washington, but put at your services, no further away than your keyboard," says the vice president. What does this mean? Essentially, Mr. Gore wants to use the Net like a big Government Printing Office where people can download their favorite federal forms. People could apply for an FHA loan online, file an e-tip with the FBI, or buy surplus government equipment at an auction called G-Bay. What the vice president didn't discuss, however, were government actions that hold back the digital revolution. The Microsoft antitrust trial contributed mightily to the stock market swoon and may yet do so again. Numerous governmental entities have designs on taxing Internet purchases. The so-called "digital divide" debate is designed to extend the welfare state online. The dream of the Internet as a safe haven from government meddling could dissolve into a nightmare of regulation. Clickety-Clack won't come back
After two decades of fighting toe to toe with personal computers, the humble typewriter is giving up the fight. After nearly a century in business, Smith Corona filed for bankruptcy and sold its assets to a North Carolina office machine wholesaler. The great switch from clicking and clacking over different keyboards was slow and relatively painless. The typewriters that are still around are used by anti-PC holdouts and those who need to type onto forms and documents that won't fit into a printer. About $400 million worth of typewriters are expected to be sold this year, which is a pretty penny but pales in comparison to PC products and services. Underwoods, Royals, Hammonds, and the rest sit in attics and antique shops; most people under 30 have no memory of them in use. Today, the look of the typewriter's type is the stuff of nostalgia. On the Net fonts like "My Old Remington" and "Mom's Typewriter" can be downloaded to create the look with a laser printer; a few programs will imitate the clunking of keys. Competitor Brother International is staying in the game, reporting plenty of demand in offices and institutions. But the days of the personal typewriter are pretty much over. The rap against Napster
The music industry is still fuming over Napster, a piece of software that lets audiophiles swap songs over the Internet. But does it hurt record sales? Sales figures aren't clear. A recent study points out that sales of recorded music near colleges declined by 4 percent between the first three months of 1998 and the same period this year. Campuses are loaded with high-speed Internet lines and students who are tempted to download songs. Dozens of colleges have banned Napster simply because all that uploading and downloading puts massive strains on their networks. Yet while sales may be down near schools, the survey (commissioned by Reciprocal Inc., a digital-rights management company) shows sales at all stores grew 12 percent during the same time. Michael Fine, CEO of Soundscan, the company that measures music purchases, said it isn't easy to figure how much money the major labels lose because of Napster. The fight over Napster reached Capitol Hill and a House Small Business Committee hearing last month. Tommy Boy Records CEO Tom Silverman complained of a "culture of infringement" where "perfectly reasonable people who would never walk into a Tower Records and steal a compact disc because they believe it to be wrong are doing the same thing on the Internet." Napster's creators are fighting lawsuits from the Recording Industry Association of America and the heavy metal band Metallica, who claim the software is just a conduit for piracy. San Mateo, Calif.-based Napster Inc. argues that it isn't responsible for others' actions. Various other tools can help people pass files around, but this program has come under special attack because it is easy to use.

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