Decentralized air

National | Net users soon may be able to do more and learn more, but e-commerce firms continue to sink

Issue: "Showing the alternative," April 21, 2001

Remote control
Carrier Corp. and IBM are planning a hot new way to cool down: an Internet-based air conditioning control service that enables people to start cooling their homes before they leave work. Tests are planned for this summer in Britain, Greece, and Italy. The planned system will hook up air conditioners to an Internet connection that allows users to control it remotely. Users will be able to turn the air conditioner on or off and change temperatures via the MyAppliance.com website, a wireless phone, or even a fax line. Carrier plans the European test this summer and won't say how soon the air conditioning service will be available in America. The service will also let technicians diagnose problems without leaving the home office. It won't add to the cost of an air conditioner, but will probably require a monthly fee. The experiment, if successful, will be a serious step toward turning home appliances into Internet appliances. Eventually, refrigerators, microwaves, and even toys will send and receive status reports over the Internet. Homeowners will be able to defrost dinner, start laundry, and run the dishwasher from anywhere in the world. As with the wireless boom, this marks a major change in how people use the Internet. Online services are becoming less a desktop tool and more like electricity, something that is always around and usually taken for granted. Setting up a fully Internet-capable house requires a lot of technology and infrastructure changes, so the typical household may not see many of the features until years from now. MIT at home
Want a free college education? MIT is swinging wide the doors of learning with a plan to post its course materials online. Visitors to the proposed website won't earn college credit, but they will find lecture notes, course outlines, reading lists, and assignments for 2,000 courses. Many schools and faculty post some material online, but it isn't on this scale. Still, the site will contain just the "raw materials" of the courses, not the teaching, according to computer science professor Hal Abelson. Those who want the full experience must pay the $26,000 annual tuition. MIT plans to build the project slowly-over 10 years, an awful long time on the Internet. In some ways the school is trying to compete with online schools that provide classes, certificates, and even degrees over the Internet. Part of MIT's justification for this $100 million project is to combat the "privatization of knowledge," which is another way of saying they want to head off competition from private entities. The plan is similar to that used by software developers in the world of open source programming. Users get "programs" (in this case, course notes), but to get "support" from the experts (classroom time, office hours) you have to pay for it. Thus young people will supposedly discover the necessity of on-campus experiences. On the other hand, many driven, curious, super-intelligent people dislike the structure and tedium of academia. They will study the information, absorb what they need and move on. For the self-motivated, online courseware can save a fortune. E-doldrums
What's the next big thing on the Internet? Capitulation. E-commerce speculation started sinking rapidly last year as investors woke up to a global economic hangover. As money ran out, start-up after start-up was taken out and shot: Names like Pets.com, eToys.com and BizBuyer.com were among the casualties. In stocktrader terms, a capitulation comes when the investing herd gives up hope en masse and starts dumping everything. The losses are simply too great and any more would be too painful. After a year of falling, the new economy must hit bottom somewhere. More than 250 dot-coms have shut down since January 2000, 70 percent of them in the last few months, according to Webmergers.com. There were also some 66,000 dot-com layoffs nationwide since December 1999, according to Challenger, Gray & Christmas, a Chicago job-placement consulting firm. An example of the death of grand Internet dreams is General Electric's decision to buy back its publicly traded subsidiary, NBC Internet. Under its umbrella were several ventures with strange names like Flyswat, GlobalBrain and AllBusiness. The most noticeable part was NBCi.com, the heavily hyped portal site and Yahoo clone that was intended to be the home page on America's browsers. Ad revenues are sinking and the company decided to quit fighting. (Disney disbanded its own portal, Go.com, earlier this year.) Eventually the last major round of closings and layoffs will come, and then a long period of regrouping will begin. The mania won't be back, but the surviving high-tech gorillas and dark-horse survivors will begin to show themselves as successes.

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