The Web business can be a haphazard, topsy-turvy world where people end up selling themselves as much as they sell their merchandise. In the process, things can get so slipshod that it often becomes difficult to remember the original intent of a Web site. Most major sites, from HotWired to the Wall Street Journal, have suffered from this problem at one point or another. It happens when huge sites fall under relatively small management. No one, it seems, can remember everything.
Still, you wouldn’t think that Microsoft would have such problems. Easily the largest software company in the world, the Washington-based company has legions of programmers and technical support staffers around the globe. A casual observer might assume there would be a few thousand people dedicated to the operations of each page.
Most people would also think the same of NBC. From its corporate perch high atop Rockefeller Center in New York, the broadcasting powerhouse has dominated both entertainment and news programming for years. Even after the streamlining of the ’80s, NBC still boasted legions of reporters, producers, and photographersmaking it perhaps the largest news organization in the world.
Both companies, now allied, pose a formidable alliance. With msNBC, their flagship news operation, corporation executives envisioned a two-pronged approach to winning the war against Ted Turner’s Cable News Network: a cable channel providing live news coverage 24 hours a day and a news Web site to end all Web sites. The Web site went up weeks ago, while the cable channel is scheduled to premiere in Nashville on July 16.
But recently msNBC encountered of one of those bizarre twists of fate usually reserved for natural disasters and politics. Just days after its widely publicized Web site launching, the joint corporate venture discovered that Internet users had suddenly lost the ability to connect to its site. The address, http://www.msnbc.com/ , just wasn’t responding.
Why? Because someone apparently forgot one major detail: to pay the bill.
Every host name on the Internet (like “nashscene.com” or “microsoft.com”) is assessed a $100 fee by a company called Internic. This name becomes the property of the person who registers it, giving him license to use it in any way he sees fit. For this small fee, Internic makes sure every computer on the Internet can look up your computer’s specific name.
In msNBC’s case, Internic discovered that its tab had not yet been paid, so last Wednesday the company dutifully shut off service. To paraphrase a television expression, msNBC did what the networks could never do: It went completely black.
As it turns out, Microsoft had indeed sent the payment. The folks responsible for fee collection at Internic had received the check but hadn’t processed it becauseironicallythe company’s computers were having problems. The problem was resolved quickly, but not before Microsoft and NBC ended up with a black eye.
Next time, it might help to check...twice. After all, it’s not like either of these companies is understaffed.
♦ Advocates of Internet “free speech” have won a major battle, but the deciding battle of the war is still yet to come. As expected, the federal government is appealing the decision of a panel of judges regarding the so-called Communications Decency Act (CDA). The law, signed into effect by President Clinton last year, was found unconstitutional by a lower federal court on June 12.
Part of a sweeping overhaul of the nation’s telecommunications regulations, the CDA carries fines and penalties of up to two years in prison for using computer networks to distribute indecent or “patently offensive” materials to minors. The law also contains a provision allowing the government to appeal a constitutionality decision directly to the Supreme Court. A date for the formal hearing has not yet been set.
♦ America Online users are going to see a few changes in coming weeks as a major new version of the AOL software is phased in. Version 3.0 provides such added benefits as redesigned screens, faster graphics rendering, and a special “applets” technology that will allow users to download upgrades without spending hours on the line. A new price structure was also unveiled, dropping the monthly price a couple of dollars.
And if that doesn’t encourage you to spend more money, America Online will soon unveil a Visa card. You’ll be able to charge your lunch or groceries and then get a few free minutes in an AOL chat room. Call it a “frequent geek” plan.
♦ From the “Doesn’t It Bug You” department: A computer error ran amuck in a British Airtours travel reservation system this week, temporarily debiting a whopping $43.6 million from the accounts of travel agents in London. A programmer caused the problem when he made a mistake in a line meant to debit individual accounts automatically. The system was instructed to charge six times normal rates. When the error was discovered, the money was quickly returnedbut not before Airtours earned an estimated $75,000 in interest on the mistake.
A spokesman for the company says it will consider claims for losses from each travel agent affected, but he didn’t go so far as to say that the company would give up the extra money. Bug or no bug, it’s still a profit.
Joel Moses can be reached via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.