Many a weird thing prompted by the internet

Last year I said we'd see a year of increasingly frantic and bizarre business models before the craze ended. It's possible we haven't seen a proliferation of ever more weird e-businesses, but we sure did see a proliferation of just plain weirdness.

Management Speak: We have set an aggressive schedule, but we have faith in you.

Translation: This is an impossible schedule and we are already behind. Risk of failure is high, but we plan on making you responsible.

--This week's contributor felt responsible enough without being identified here.

The internet stock bubble never burst, as fellow columnist Bob Metcalfe predicted it would last year. "Burst" implies explosiveness. As an investment category, the internet looked more like a hot air balloon that ran out of heat and sounded more like a whoopee cushion than a "pop!"

Preferred metaphor notwithstanding, the wind left the dot-com sails far more quickly than I predicted last year, when I said we'd see a year of increasingly frantic and bizarre business models before the craze ended.

It's possible we haven't seen a proliferation of ever more weird e-businesses, but we sure did see a proliferation of just plain weirdness.

For example, after buying the movie rights for Harry Potter, Warner Brothers got stupid. Instead of embracing the hundred or so Harry Potter fan club sites put up by children around the world, its lawyers sent threatening letters to shut them all down. If you're ever in a position to influence your own business in a similar situation, point out that fan clubs give you free publicity, and although threatening letters from your lawyers to children also give you free publicity, it isn't the good kind. The Register has covered this story extensively. In particular, look for a hilarious letter from Groucho to Warner Brothers defending the Marx Brothers' right to call their movie A Night in Casablanca.

Amazon.com, intent on destroying every bit of customer goodwill it created during its startup phase, adopted an arrogant "privacy policy". As Ed Foster revealed, it amounts to collecting customer data now and using it according to their privacy rules, which it reserves the right to rewrite as and when it pleases. On top of this Amazon tried out "dynamic pricing", charging different customers different amounts for the same product. Microeconomic theorists defended the practice on the grounds that since products hold different value for different customers, companies should charge them different amounts.

Memo to microeconomic theorists: business theory states that sales to loyal customers cost only a fifth of what it costs to attract new ones. Charge one customer more than another for the same product and he'll feel swindled. Then he'll take his business elsewhere and tell everyone he knows what rotten people you are. Dynamic pricing may be good microeconomics, but it's lousy business.

The German Finance Ministry decided people who use work computers for personal purposes should be taxed, figuring it amounts to an employee benefit. The Wall Street Journal quoted Andreas Schmidt, head of Bertelsmann AG's e-commerce division, as saying German bureaucrats never run out of ideas to prevent economic growth.

And finally in the faux porn department: Blackplanet.com, through its diligent use of software filtering to prevent inappropriate language on its site, refused membership to Los Angeles attorney Sherril Babcock. Here's a clue for internet filtering software providers: match to whole words, not syllables, and only flag sites or messages that include at least two words on your bad-word list.

Before the World Wide Web, the internet had a reputation for weirdness due to some of the bizarre news group discussion threads. In a way, it's nice to see the internet return to its roots.

Have a similar experience? Send email to Bob Lewis. Lewis is a Minneapolis-based consultant with Perot Systems.

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