Cheap, Incredibly Fast Net AccessPlus: Cell phone clubs, a store in your OS, and free streaming audio.
1. Really Broad Broadband
Illustration by Harry Campbell
Bottom Line: Like the doctor says, fiber is good for you. Too bad it's so hard to get.
2. Phone-Side Chats
The Buzz: Man is a social animal with opposable thumbs, which explains the burgeoning popularity of SMS (short message service) clubs composed of mobile citizens who share common interests and a passion for cell phone "texting." San Diego-based SMS.ac--which boasts 10 million-plus members in some 200 countries--has more than 100,000 user-created clubs, from MJTurkFan ("Michael Jackson's Turkish Die-Hard Fans") to Nike World. Sending an SMS note is free, but for receiving messages club members are charged a small fee, which SMS.ac shares with the club's founder.
Bottom Line: It isn't all fun and games. Say you've missed work or blown off a meeting. Just SMS a plea to the Alibi and Excuse Club, and a stranger will intercede (as in, lie) on your behalf. Handy!
3. Windows Shopping
The Buzz: Microsoft is readying Windows Marketplace, a site that will point shoppers toward Windows-compatible hardware, software, and downloads. Accessible via the XP Start menu, an Internet Explorer button (added via Windows updates), and third-party sites, Marketplace will feature "a really big tent" of merchants, says Windows XP product manager Tracy Overby. Multiple partners are promised, though at press time only CNet (which brings Download.com and a passel of e-tailers to the party) has been announced. It isn't yet clear how Micro-soft will make money from this, though history suggests it'll find a way to profit.
Bottom Line: Hmm.... I wonder if you'll be able to buy the Windows version of Monopoly on the Marketplace site.
4. Free Music Streams
The Buzz: An intriguing new model for music sharing, Mercora transforms its members into broadcasters who can stream any song in their library to others using Mercora's peer-to-peer network. Members can create groups and specify who gets to hear their music. But all listening is live: There's no downloading permitted. In the spirit of P-to-P, members can't listen in unless they make their own content available for sharing.
Bottom Line: Mercora pays a licensing fee to the record industry. In other words, it's legal. Look, Ma, no lawsuits.
Nagging Question: Why Is It Called Beta Software?
The second letter of the Greek alphabet, beta signals the second item in a series. In the world of prerelease software, an "alpha" is the first iteration--a program undergoing in-house testing. When an alpha graduates to beta, intrepid customers get to try it out. Most software passes through multiple beta stages and then "release candidates." The final version is often referred to as GA (for "general availability") or "gold code"--an overly optimistic moniker, given the inevitable bug fixes and service packs that follow.