NWA-PCUG Newsletter Article
Here Today, Gone in a Month or Two
Think it's bad now? Wait a year and more dot.coms will be dot.gone
by Steve Bass, Pasadena IBM Users Group, July 2001
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Get out your hankies, folks, I've got a sob story for you. This is an actual e-mail I received recently. I changed the name so I wouldn't get sued and [annotated the e-mail within the brackets with what the company was really thinking].

"It is with deep regret [but not lots of remorse] that we inform you that we will be discontinuing our verycool.com service effective March 28th, 2001 [Don't worry. You'll see us again. We're starting something just as dumb next month].

Due to current market conditions [actually we overspent like crazy], we have found it impossible to continue to offer this service ['cause our venture capitalists finally got wise].

While we will endeavor to keep the service operational [actually, one server, the slow one, and the only one even the creditors didn't want] and fully functional until late March [at least the front page of the Web site, just enough to fool the creditors], we can make no guarantees of up- time or performance [but guaranteed it's not going to be great].

Therefore, we strongly recommend that you retrieve any data that you desire [along with a zillion other people, slowing the site to a crawl] and transition to an alternative provider at the earliest possible date [like today, okay? `Cause we're not sure if our ISP will give us access to the servers much longer]."

Circling the Drain
In the last few months, sites that I actually used-and some I was about to try--have landed belly up.

oo Freeworks.com, a truly wonderful site--and one I wrote about in a nationwide magazine-ran out of money in February, '01.

oo PlanetRx.com, one of about five drug and prescription sites, closed their doors in March. They're urging me to move to drugstore.com, who will likely shift the business to WebRX in a few months.

oo AcmePet? Petopia.com? Slammed their doggie doors and were scarfed up by PetSmart and PetCo.

oo eStamps, one of the great innovators of online postage took a licking, canceling their service, and encouraging customers to get in line and switch to Neopost Online's Simply Postage. (No thanks.)

oo Dow Jones closes Work.com, laying off over 100 staffers.

oo Paypal, a terrific service that's doing well merged with X.com, the online bank. Within three months, X.com disappeared, with not a mention on Paypal's site.

oo Driveway.com, Netdrive.com, and Docspace.com, all online storage sites, and all history.

So Who You Gonna Trust?
So obviously, if you're thinking of depending on a new web site for anything important, you're going to have to make some informed choices. If you get a look at the company's Form 1040.com (see page 3) you'll have a big edge.

One industry insider said to me, "don't use the online storage sites for permanent storage. Considering how many online storage sites are around, it's no wonder they've lasted this long. My bet is that iDrive will be one of the few to survive."

PC World's curmudgeon, Steve Manes advised that, "Free services may be particularly flaky, and doubtless more will fail." (see http://www.pcworld.com/features/article/0,aid,41086,00.asp)

Protecting Yourself
I have a few recommendations; things you can do to defend yourself against losing data, money, or credit card numbers you have online.

o Diversify.com: Whatever you do, don't depend on any single free file storage service. Take the extra time to store your files in at least two places. Even if the online site is rock solid financially, they may become temporarily unavailable.

Better, increase the odds that your precious data is safely stored online- and easily retrievable--by choosing a service that's fee-based.

o Withdraw.com: Never leave more money on an online service than you can afford to lose. For instance, I leave $5 in my Paypal account, transferring funds to my real-world bank whenever the amount reaches $25. Ditto for the many of you selling used books on Amazon.com and Half.com.

o Minimum.com: eStamps let users get a full refund but hassled them, asking for the return of the electronic vault, a small electronic gadget. Alternately, they gave users up to two months to use up their postage, fine if you send out lots of mail. My advice? If you try an electronic postage gizmo, buy just enough postage that you'll use in a month, and no more than you're willing to lose.

o Disposable.com: One fear many of us have is an online store passes away and passes along your credit card number. The solution? Disposable credit cards. Many companies, such as American Express and MBNA, provide single- use credit cards. The randomly generated credit-card number is used for that one transaction and won't be used again.

The purchase is billed to the shopper's account, but the account's actual credit-card number is kept off the Web. So the online merchant doesn't know your real credit card number and the account number never goes out over the Internet.

o DigDeep.com: If you've invested lots of time and money in, say, an online e-commerce site, or a stock market service, keep your ear to the ground. Actually this is good advice no matter what type of financial stews you have cooking online. My advice is to use the Internet to get a belly sense of how the company is doing and where they're going.

One thing to watch for are rumors that a company may be gobbled up by a bigger firm. While that may be okay, a lot depends on who's buying. For instance, Intel's famous for their purchase and desert strategy. They bought a terrific online and callback tech service, promoted it like all get out, and then abandoned it in less than a year. That was undoubtedly painful for the investors. Worse, though, are the poor schnooks trying to sell products on the Internet.

ICat was an Intel fiasco. ICat was a successful company providing the front- and back end for many e-com merchants. I wrote about them in PC World in 1999, and they were doing a terrific job. ICat was doing so well, Intel bought them, also giving them a virtual kiss of death. They were gone in less than a year. The lesson? If you were paying attention, you would have learned about the Intel buyout and started moving to another e- com site.

So checking a few web-savvy sites often will give you a little bit of an edge. The two sites I visit regularly provide a different perspective on the online business.

o http://www.thestandard.com A site with enough between-the-lines reading to make it worth a weekly visit. For instance, thinking of investing in an online magazine? Not a great idea. It's becoming clear that Salon's (http://www.salon.com) not doing so well. They're shifting to the model only the Wall Street Journal has found successful-subscription based access.

o http://www.ecompany.com Lots of stuff here but focus on Amy Kover's STREET LIFE column.

o http://www.****edCompany.com This famous site is based on the classic parlor game of deadpool--picking celebrity deaths with points earned based on odds, usually the age of the celebrity. (I can't repeat the actual name of the site. But I will say they buck the trend, and in order to fill in the first four asterisks, tuck your hands in your pocket, think for a minute, and maybe you'll have some luck. And be careful: Once you figure out the word, type in the URL exactly or you'll end up at some porn site.

The site's variation on the deadpool game is that they bet on companies instead of people. "The lines are a little blurred," they say, "when dealing with companies because there is rarely a clean-cut death." ****edCompany is an essential tool when protecting yourself against the demise of dot.coms.

o http://www.business2.com Short, tightly written pieces with plenty of details. Writers to follow include Jenny Oh, Jim Welte, and Kevin McLaughlin. (Stick their names in the search field.

o http://www.fundalarm.com While not a site to protect you against failing dot.coms, fundalarm is so valuable, I included it here. Their tagline is "know when to hold `em, know when to fold `em, know when to walk away, and know when to run." Sure it sounds like poker but they're talking about mutual funds, and the guy gives away free, meaningful, and irreverent advice.

Steve Bass is a Contributing Editor with PC World Magazine, frequently writes for Forbes ASAP, Working Woman, and Family Circle, and is the president of the Pasadena IBM Users Group. He can be reached at stevebass@earthlink.net Sign up for Bass's online newsletter at http://www.pcworld.com/bass_letter

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