Free for All


Information may want to be free, but does knowledge want to go gratis? Risking profits for the sake of progress, NYU Press has decided to publish journalist Wendy Grossman’s canny new book, net.wars, simultaneously in print and in a free online version. For NYU, it’s a big gamble for publicity. For Grossman, a regular on the Bay Area BBS The WELL, it’s a threat to royalties but terrific distribution for the book, which tracks the development of the Net through “battlesites”–the controversies that have raged in the electronic ether.

Not the least of which may be the Web publication of net.wars itself. While no one has been able to prove that people will actually curl up with a good monitor, publishing direct to the Web as an advertising strategy hit a certain vogue last year. A John Grisham excerpt and a Stephen King short story had brief runs online, but most offerings are “crippleware,” says Glenn Hauman, who runs electronic text outlet BiblioBytes –just chapters, parts of chapters, or frustrating bagatelles. Other sites, like the 27-year-old Project Gutenberg  or Internet Public Library, offer only Chaucer and Marlowe, not works on the market.

But the online design of net.wars points to an even more dramatic literary evolution. net.wars, with over 500 hypertext links, is truly more Web site than book, and it unquestionably belongs online. In testament, traffic to the site is up tenfold, says editor Timothy Bartlett, who just left NYU Press. Unlike Esther Dyson, whose Release 2.0 includes a pathetic appendix of URLs, Grossman is careful to keep her history organic and relevant–linking to sites on the anti-Scientology and encryption debates. As Hauman says, rather than “try to explain sex when there’s a bed handy,” Grossman opens her work out to the Web. “Because the book grew out of Net culture, it still holds that mentality of sharing information,” says Hauman.

Academic presses are alone in experimenting with the mix of print and electronic versions, explicitly because they’re not an industry of bestsellers. In its vanguard Digital Projects division, MIT has also released six books on the Web, but only done one simultaneous release of both versions, William J. Mitchell’s City of Bits in 1995. Like net.wars, the book is truly networked literature, but is unfortunately drunk on hypertext (e.g., a mention of “jokes” links to a random site with lightbulb humor).

Despite the fertile crossbreeding between dead-tree and electronic fiction, it’s likely online publication won’t survive as a free-for-all. Previously, the publicity could drive sales, but with the proliferation of other online book distributors, “the e-books are having less of a positive impact on the print editions,” says MIT Press editor Terry Ehling. But tinkering with the form is as important as developing a pay-to-peruse system. As Ehling says, “We’re in a gray area and it’s not clear what we should do next, but we won’t stop experimenting.”

Plugging NetTV

Beckett would have appreciated NetTV: disjunctive, occasionally incomprehensible, and mostly you’re just stuck waiting for it to arrive. But where you see chunky graphics and broken links, three Alley companies see opportunity. This month, SimplyTV, Pseudo Networks, and Virtual Melanin have officially declared themselves online TV networks, programming for a postage stamp–sized screen.

Nowhere else in the industry are hype and reality more ridiculously distant. SimplyTV, launched with 20 different “shows” in December, announced it would unveil a stunning 1000 new ones by April, among them live concerts (Genesis, Stevie Wonder) and specials like “Battle of the Basketball Stars.” According to CEO Krystol Cameron, SimplyTV licenses its 30-minute programs from 80 independent video producers, which keeps its costs low. There’s no telling about the quality, though–try watching the puny 20K “Phat Beat Videos” and your computer promptly crashes. “We’re still in the soft-launch phase,” explains Cameron.

Pseudo and Virtual Melanin  have more modest aspirations and longer track records. After years of netcasting its 40 radio programs, Pseudo plans to relaunch itself into eight “channels,” pushing the video component of the broadcasts. It’s not intended to be polished TV; Pseudo head Josh Harris wants it to be “like watching Oprah”–live studio shows with chat. With the launch of, the cybercast veterans at Virtual Melanin are bidding to be a media hub for African Americans and Latinos online, with music videos, live performances, and “magazine” format shows from “Today’s Black World.”

Why all this now? “Nineteen ninety-eight will be the year of T1 line,” claims SimplyTV’s Cameron. But the standard software still needs to be figured out–each site requires the RealPlayer 5.0, but has anyone out there successfully downloaded it? (I can’t.) With their product technologically hampered, the real question is: Will these companies be around for ’99?

Moveable ISP

Some lost power, others merchandise and a few business days. But after the water main blew on Fifth Avenue between 19th and 20th, Tatiana Aleksa, owner of the 10-person ISP Octet Media, has struggled not to lose her entire business.

When the phone system crashed Friday, January 2, Octet went dark, and the company’s 2000 dial-up customers, mostly from New York’s Russian community, were left with a busy signal. “I was really nervous–no connection, no company,” says Aleksa. Because of safety hazards, police wouldn’t let her into the building until Sunday afternoon, when she finally managed to transport her servers to nearby ISP Intercom’s offices. Though she quickly reestablished her company’s Web-hosting services, the dial-up service was disabled for a week. About 10 per cent of Octet’s customers had already closed their accounts.

Even with service restored, Octet may be unable to lure them back. And because there is no damage to Octet’s equipment, the insurance won’t cover the loss of clients. As a last resort, Aleksa went analog and contacted Kurier, the largest local Russian newspaper, to place a public notice to her customers (Octet, incidentally, hosts the paper’s Web site). Aleksa is still waiting to see if the city awards Octet an emergency grant. She considered notifying her customers by phone, but she says, “You know, it’s impossible to make 2000 phone calls.”