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NOTEBOOK/TECHWATCH APRIL 20, 1998 VOL. 151 NO. 15


Levittown On The Web

By JOSHUA QUITTNER


ome kids fixate on toy cars or trucks or guns. When David Bohnett, founder of the surprise smash-hit Website GeoCities (www.geocities.com), was a little boy, his obsession was the telephone. "I still think phones are the coolest," he says. He remembers when touch-tone phones first came to Hinsdale, Ill., his hometown. "I told my parents I'd give up my allowance if they got one," he says.

Bohnett's phone-mania is the Rosebud that explains why GeoCities has grown into the biggest (dare I use the word?) community on the Web. He understands that community is mostly about communicating--and he figured out a way to facilitate both online. Think of him as the Web equivalent of William Levitt, the postwar developer who built affordable homes in suburbs like Levittown, Long Island. Bohnett's was the first Website to supply free home pages, and the tools to build them, to all comers. To date, nearly 1.7 million users have signed up and are publishing their home-brew homages to Leo DiCaprio, Beanie Babies, Windows 95 and everything between.

Doling out freebies online is more than simple largesse, of course. The plan is to turn a profit real soon. Bohnett is, after all, an M.B.A.-packing capitalist. Like other entrepreneurs who have struggled with the How-Do-I-Make-Money-Online riddle, he figured that the first step was to attract a crowd. He started doing that in January 1995, when he got a friend to hang a camera out of the window of his Beverly Hills office and transmit to the Web live images of a bus-stop bench on Wilshire Boulevard. Oprah featured it and Bohnett on her TV show to illustrate the dubious pleasures of Web snooping. When crowds flocked to the site, Bohnett was ready. He put on his camera page links to "neighborhoods" that were really just more Web pages arranged by topic (such as sports, finance, entertainment). A few months later, he began giving away the home-page real estate, keyed to the same interest groups.

The neighborhoods grew quickly and without any zoning ordinances to speak of. "Our only rule was that your home page had to be consistent with the neighborhood," says Bohnett. In other words, if your site is in the "Pines" section of "Silicon Valley"--which happens to be dedicated to software browsers--your page is supposed to be about software browsers. Volunteer police squads and GeoCities staff members try to root out the occasional pirates, hate-mongers and pornographers, with modest success.

GeoCities is not quite yet in the black. But Bohnett expects to haul in $17 million this year selling ads on his users' home pages, and he has begun permitting "shopkeepers" to sell goods and services from their sites via credit card. He hopes to take his company public before the end of the year. By then he should be able to buy all the phones he wants.

Read the Netly News daily on the Web at netlynews.com


CODEBREAKERS

CRACKED Thought your new digital cell phone was safe from high-tech thieves? Guess again. Silicon Valley cypherpunks have broken the proprietary encryption technology used in 80 million GSM (Global System for Mobile communications) phones nationwide, including Motorola MicroTAC, Ericsson GSM 900 and Siemens D1900 models. Now crooks scanning the airwaves can remotely tap into a call and duplicate the owner's digital ID. "We can clone the phones," brags Marc Briceno, who organized the cracking. His advice: manufacturers should stick to publicly vetted codes that a bunch of geeks can't crack in their spare time.


CHAIRWARE

PLAY STATION Vidkids hooked on high-impact games with stereo sound tracks will have a tough time leaving their seats at next month's E3 convention. That's when BSG Laboratories will debut the Intensor, a $500 speaker-studded chair (with between-the-legs bass and separate subwoofer) to give hard-core players a body-thumping shot of visceral reality.


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