Cool Off-the-Web Ideas

In a move reminiscent of the crackdown against bandwidth-hog PointCast several years ago, several colleges and universities banned the use of Napster from their networks last week. And while this probably won’t have a big impact on many ClickZ readers, it does bring up some real issues about the big world out there beyond the web.

For any of you old folks who don’t know, Napster is one of the hippest things to hit college campuses in the last year. Napster isn’t a web product and has nothing to do with short periods of sleep. Instead, Napster is a system of interlinked servers and client software designed to let people “share” their MP3 collections across the Net.

To join in, a Napster user simply places his or her collection of MP3 files in a publicly accessible space for other Napster users to browse. Collections are registered at a central server where other users can search and find the files they want. Users searching for files simply have to type the name of the artist they’re looking for, pick the MP3s on the resulting list, and download… it’s that simple.

But Napster’s more than a simple file-sharing device. With its built-in chat capabilities, Napster’s really a whole community built around sharing music files with other folks. It’s an enormous community of fanatical users that currently has no advertising and no marketing… just content people really, really want.

MP3 files are big, and that’s why the colleges are stepping in. At universities where Napster use is high, lots of bandwidth is taken up by students swapping music. Indiana University, one of the first to ban Napster, claims that the program was sucking up 61 percent of its available bandwidth… ouch!

As students will do, they’ve now organized to fight the ban, which many feel is really focused on censoring their access to music on the Internet. Students Against University Censorship has opened a site at http://www.savenapster.com, hoping to gather enough signatures on their online petition to get the ban lifted. So far they haven’t prevailed, but they have gotten coverage in U.S. News, the L.A. Times, The Industry Standard, Wired, and other online and offline publications.

So how does this affect you, oh humble ClickZ reader? Why should you care about all this brouhaha? Here’s why – because there’s more out there than the web!

The Internet is really just a big communications medium. Really. And even though most of us spend our time thinking about how we’re going to market on the great big world of the web, we owe it to ourselves to think about how we could be using this communications medium in other ways to reach our customers.

What first might come to mind is all those instant messaging services. They’re OK, but no one’s figured out how to make money from them yet. What you might not know too much about yet is Hotline, a non-web-based community and file-sharing system that’s been doing well since its birth over four years ago.

At first glance, Hotline is a throwback to those pre-Internet days of bulletin board systems. Users log on to a server through a special client program (freely downloadable and ad supported), get a user name and password, and can then proceed to chat with those on the system, leave messages, or upload/download files.

Last time I checked there were literally thousands of Hotline sites (accessible through various “tracker” sites) with millions of users every day. It’s a whole shadow world that never touches the web and, like Napster, one more example of what can be done when you break the web paradigm.

One of the coolest (though a bit pricey) new off-the-web ideas out there comes from Ceiva, a start-up whose new Internet-connected picture frame sets a new standard in the “how much do you really love your grandchildren” game.

Looking for all the world like a simple black picture frame, Ceiva sits on your desktop hooked into your electrical outlet and your phone line. Every morning between 1 and 5 a.m., Ceiva dials up its server and downloads ten images to display. All you have to do is upload your images to your Ceiva account on their web site to change what you see.

It’s pretty dang cool. Unfortunately, Ceiva currently costs $249 and has a more than $7.00 per month service fee, so it may be out of the price range of all but the most motivated of grandparents.

Will we see an ad-supported version in the future? Who knows, but it would be a good way to get it out there for free. Or imagine a CeivaPro model that could be used for constantly rotated outdoor advertising or signage! There are a whole lot of ideas out there when you think outside the web.

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