Rise Of The City Sites

WHERE DO YOU WANT TO GO TOday?'' That's the question Microsoft has been asking at the end of its television commercials. But now, Bill Gates and Co. are no longer simply asking the question. With a new online service code-named Cityscape, announced this week for implementation next year, Microsoft is going to tell you where to go today. ""We will be like that friend you trust who knows what movies you like and what's new and best in town,'' says the service's marketing head, Richard Tait. If, as planned, thousands of consumers drop into Cityscape on the Microsoft Network or the World Wide Web to submit to its leisure-time recommendations, cyberspace may finally fulfill its long-hyped pitch to advertisers: fresh, eager customers, delivered to sellers at the precise moment they want to spend their dollars. No wonder Microsoft is investing millions of dollars and hiring teams of reviewers and editors in a dozen cities, including possibly some outside the United States. And no wonder newspapers are sweating as they figure out how to hold on to their local ads. The Web is moving from shotgun spray to rifle shot, and the switch may change both the way we get information about our communities and the way we spend our money there.

Microsoft is only the newest entry in the exploding category of city sites, where several major ventures are already on the virtual launch pad. It's almost as if the Internet's motto is now ""Post globally, but rake in cash locally.'' Makes sense, since 70 percent of all purchases are made within 10 miles of home sweet home. In some respects the players seem to be reading from a boilerplate press release: all are advertiser-supported and lavishly financed, and all boast that they'll eventually blanket every urban area on the continent while re-creating a cyberspace version of each town's gestalt. (New York sites will supposedly feature restaurant listings punched out by Jimmy Breslin clones; Seattle sites will simultaneously drip grunge and highlight hiking trails.) But each claims some distinguishing characteristics.

CitySearch: Already operating in North Carolina's Research Triangle, Pasadena, Calif., and New York, the high-profile start-up hopes to sprout in 30 cities by next year. Its key word is community: ""We'll work closely with the chamber of commerce and the mayor,'' says CEO Charles Conn. CitySearch hopes to make money by maintaining Web sites for local businesses; a typical customer would be a restaurant publishing its menus online. Eventually, consumers will be able to choose a restaurant, make a reservation, pull up a map that shows them where to park--and maybe even select a prime table. Really ambitious food mavens might then surf over to municipal records to check for health-code violations.

Digital City: Begun by America Online with participation from the Tribune Co., this $100 million operation aims to be ""AOL on a micro level,'' says general manager Bob Smith. He wants people to log on several times a day--in the morning you'd check out weather, traffic reports and school closings. At night you'd get local news and participate in chats with, for instance, a city councilperson or the hockey team's goalie. Digital City's six sites (30 to 40 by late '97) are only on AOL, but will expand to the Web this fall.

Yahoo! regional sites: ""We think that producing our own content is redundant,'' says Chief Yahoo Jerry Yang. Instead, his company will aggregate all the Web sites in a given area, secure major links to important local sites (like The Village Voice's entertainment listings), offer free classifieds and sell ad space to local banks and department stores. Meanwhile, other Web-search companies like Lycos are starting their own local operations.

Then there's Microsoft, which has characteristically arrived on the scene with the approximate impact of the meteor that obviated the dinosaurs. At first, Cityscape (Microsoft is looking into a spiffier appellation, rumored to be Sidewalk) will focus tightly on arts and entertainment. Later, expect everything from real-estate listings to shopping guides. Lucre from the empire of Windows is luring name journalists. The national editor is Michael Goff, the marketing-savvy founder of Out magazine. Editing content at the New York site--which, with Seattle, Boston and San Franscisco, will debut in the first part of 1997--is Eric Etheridge, who made his reputation at Seven Days, a late and lamented arts-oriented New York weekly. Microsoft will also soak up content from partners in various cities; in its own hometown, for instance, it has allied with the alternative paper Seattle Weekly.

This may well result in a fine new source for music reviews and dining tips, but anyone who has impatiently twiddled his thumbs in front of a slow-loading browser knows the ugly truth: no matter how many critics they hire and how up to date their traffic reports, Microsoft and its competitors won't succeed simply by delivering the same stuff you can get in freebie weeklies or drive-time radio. Their future lies in exploiting the interactivity inherent in the Web. To do this, however, the city sites must persuade consumers not to browse anonymously, but to reveal their identities--not an easy trick in the mistrustful environment of the Web. The incentive could be in the form of discounts, or more unconventional carrots made possible only by computer technology.

For instance, in the upcoming version of CitySearch, there is a feature called Performer Alert. If you love Wynonna Judd and reveal your obsession to CitySearch, its editors will notify you by e-mail the instant a Judd concert is announced. In future iterations of the system, it's likely that you can authorize the company to buy the ticket for you--perhaps at a premium that CitySearch pockets. Maybe at some point CitySearch will sell record companies a list of these fans, who will get notices of new artists who sound like the lovely Wynonna.

Of all the city-site companies, however, it is Microsoft that will make the most of the Web's interactivity. The Redmond, Wash., giant has been busily researching the implementation of electronic commerce, so you can bet that future generations of Cityscape are going to offer a number of ways for customers to spend money online. Some of these methods undoubted- ly will mesh with other Microsoft software. (You might authorize Cityscape to buy your ticket to that Wynonna concert only if, after checking your Microsoft-brand calendar, you have no high-priority commitments that night.) Microsoft is also expanding its operating system in a way that may jibe with Cityscape technology. Just last week it announced Windows CE, which will allow for Web browsing in low-cost handheld computers of the near future. Do you think that it has escaped the notice of the agenda makers in Redmond that something like Cityscape--offering on-the-spot local information as well as maps of where activities are located--might be a perfect complement to a handheld or dashboard information appliance?

There are some obstacles facing this nascent genre. For one thing, plenty of dailies--like The Boston Globe, The Washington Post and The New York Times--are already running elaborate Web sites. They are the undisputed experts at generating classified-ad sales, and they don't intend to lie down and die at the arrival of these cyberspace carpetbaggers. ""Yes, the newspapers are worried,'' says Steve Brotman, CEO of AdOne, a Web-based system that works with newspapers to pool classified ads in a single easy-to-search site. ""But in every market, they're still the best-known media outlet.''

Perhaps the most serious question is whether the Web itself will be able to provide consumers with everything they need to plan their evenings out and access the lunch menus at Junior's school. Consider an example that's already here: if you're in the mood for a flick, you can go to the Moviefone Web site, type in your ZIP code and get show times at the theaters nearest you, along with the opportunity to buy a seat with your credit card. Why bother with a Cityscape or Digital City when you can go direct?

The city sites, of course, believe that most people will prefer their guidance in navigating the intricate shoals of cyberspace. If they succeed in telling their visitors who's the best new band at the downtown clubs, what the fourth-grade math assignment is and when Armani jackets go on sale, they may well find themselves a staple in people's everyday lives. All that remains, then, is to see which companies will reap the rewards.

""This battle will be fought city by city,'' vows CitySearch's Conn. His problem, however, and a concern of every newspaper that's thought about going electronic, is that Microsoft knows where it wants to go every day: the winner's circle. ^