Putting It All In The Pipeline

SCIENCE WRITER JAMES GLEICK, 40, is the author of the best seller "Chaos: Making a New Science" and "Genius: The Life and Science of Richard Feynman." A year and a half ago, he went online for the first time--in search of an Internet bridge game--only to be met by a puzzling response on the screen: "$," a Unix command-line prompt. After mastering what Gleick describes as a prodigious amount of "Unix arcana," he eventually found the bridge game. "Actually," he says, "it's pretty amazing to play duplicate bridge in real time with a crowd of people from four or five continents."

Still, like many Internet users, he knew there had to be a better way to get around, and he decided to create it himself. Gleick and programmer Uday Ivatury designed the Pipeline, a New York-based Internet provider with an easy-to-use graphical interface for Windows or Macs. It now has more than 6,000 subscribers. Gleick says. Recently, Gleick decided to franchise the Pipeline's interface through Virginia-based InterCon Systems Corp. to local Internet providers around the country. Gleick talked about that decision, and his view of the Internet's future, in an interview (via e-mail on the PipeNine) with NEWSWEEK Senior Writer Barbara Kantrowitz.

When Pipeline first started, the major commercial online services had very little--if any--Internet access. That is rapidly changing. Is that a threat to your business?

The major commercial online services still have little or no Internet access. What's extraordinarily revealing is how much Internet buzz is coming from the private serv-ices-America Online especially, along with Prodigy and CompuServe. They're under heavy pressure from their users, and they would like to say that they offer that magical thing called "Internet access." But they don't, not even AOL, which makes the most Internet noise. Go on AOL and try to do some of the things Internet users take for granted-search other Internet sites for files and retrieve them, talk in real time with other Net users anywhere in the world, view online art galleries, browse Web pages and so on. After you've used areal Internet gateway, you realize how much of the Net is invisible from AOL.

The commercial services are facing a lose-lose situation. They can keep their windows closed, in which case they will lose users faster and faster to local services that can provide easy, inexpensive, genuine Net access. Or they can open the windows, in which ease their customers will quickly see how much more interesting the landscape is outside. The national services are dinosaurs, and we're little furry animals scurrying about at their feet.

You recently made a decision to franchise the Pipeline interface through InterCon rather than expanding Pipeline nationally. What was the reasoning behind that?

I don't think anyone knows yet what the perfect online service or the perfect Inter-net gateway should look like. We've created some innovations we're happy with, and for every one of these, I suspect we've missed a thousand opportunities to do even better. The model that makes the most sense to me is producing a kind of software that's as flexible and chameleonlike as possible and distributing it to dozens or hundred s of other services. Let's see what they come up with!

Regionally based services can do things that national services can't. We're working with the city of New York to get some of their officials and some of their public information online. The Pipeline should have a New York face, and we hope that the many sites that are using our software as an interface will do the same, giving their Internet access local color. Of course, a lot of the Internet's magic is its universality, the ability to have instantaneous communication with people in Stockholm or Taiwan. But regional, city, even block-by-block scales matter, too. I think a lot of the consumer services that will get us hooked or keep us online will be in that category. This is the Infobahn's version of "Think Globally, Act Locally."

How do you think people will use the Internet in the future?

Here's a key question for anyone's vision of the electronic future: how many hours a day will you be online? If you look closely at the economic model underlying the traditional services, you can see that they expect you to be online for a few hours a month and then get bored. Their hourly pricing goes up with more use. The Internet tradition is already very different. We think you're going to be online for many hours. Our pricing goes down with more use, and we do have users who seem to be connected more or less around the clock. That doesn't mean that you can't go out and stretch your legs every once in a while, but at least your computer remains part of the Net.

We designed our software with this vision in mind. Lots of things just happen, in a way that isn't true with old-style online-service software, Your mail arrives, and the little red flag goes up on your mailbox. Somebody "chats" you from his terminal in Paris, and a little on-screen phone rings. We let you open a window with your stock portfolio in it and the prices will keep on updating themselves all day.

The next step is to have intelligent agents, infobots, electronic ferrets out there getting stuff for you. We already have a few of these in operation. Our EdgarBot is running around the clock, checking the archives of corporate SEC filings in the Internet Edgar project and matching new documents against our users' standing queries. When it finds something of interest, it sends the document out by e-mail. More and more intelligence is in the network itself. We will all eventually be part of the network, one way or another, whether it's with or without wires, whether it's with or without those ugly desktop computers.