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  london - davey winder

do you want to be an internet virgin?

Richard Branson is a very successful businessman, and one of the richest men in the UK as a result. He started out selling records by mail order, then formed his own record label, his own radio station, and somehow moved into the airline business. In everything he does he finds success -- even in the rather crowded cola market, where Virgin is now a brand to be reckoned with. Will the man with the Midas touch turn cyberspace into digital gold? Davey Winder has been musing about that.

The other week I ventured across London's Chelsea Bridge in the first snow of the year. My destination was a warehouse that is usually host to some pretty wild rave parties, but not on this occasion. It was 10 a.m., and two hundred-odd members of the media were milling about with a glass of champagne in one hand and a crispy curly biscuit thing in the other. This space branson was the official press launch for Virgin Net, Richard Branson's attempt to find a way into the lucrative Internet Access market.

Branson, entrepreneur extraordinaire, made his usual showbiz entrance. This time he was hanging from a mini-crane, wrapped in an orange net and wearing a silver spacesuit. He explained later that his bursting forth from the net was symbolic of breaking free from the complexities faced by newcomers to the online world -- he also admitted, a tad more believably, that such a stunt increases the chance of TV and newspaper coverage.

I was there not because I was excited about yet another Internet Service Provider (do we really need another one?). No, I was there because Branson kind of excites me -- but then I'm odd like that. Here's a man whose Virgin Radio was one of the first in the UK to move onto virgin radio the Web, providing a value-add to the brand rather than just online advertising of the brand. Using RealAudio technology, Virgin broadcasts over the net, and uses just about every available technology to ensure an exciting site. Indeed, they won the "Best Use of Technology" category at the recent Best of the Web awards in the UK. So could it be that Branson is the man to make a difference to the net? Could it be that Virgin will be that exceptional thing, an innovative Internet service?

It started well, with Branson explaining that he doesn't know how this Internet thing works "It's not about how you make Virgin Cola, it's about what it tastes like." Can't fault him on that. "It's about getting more out of life." I'll even give him that one. Things went a tad wrong when we were informed that Virgin Net will mean you can "spend less time in front of your computer, and more time doing something more interesting instead" -- which seems an odd way to sell a computer-based service to me. I was more concerned, however, with that spacesuit. C'mon Dick, the public are a bit fed up with the whole "cyberspace" routine; if you're presenting them with a non-techie, man-on-the-street access system, then this approach won't win any votes. And I'm not convinced that the Virgin brand necessarily translates into an email address to die for. has a certain ring to it, and I don't like the sound of the bell. Mind you, seeing as the service comes bundled with CyberSitter for parental control (something that should be applauded: whilst one may not agree with censorship one certainly agrees with choice -- and many parents will choose to use a service that gives them some control over what their kids can access), this could lead to some fun times if the software decides a site with "virgin" in the domain could have something to do with naughties.

But what really concerns me about Virgin Net, and Microsoft's relaunched MSN service for that matter, is the adoption of a structured-channel approach.

Here's the gig: you sign up with us for Internet access, we whip you onto our web site where you are presented with a number of "channels." There's a people channel, a news channel, entertainment, sports, games, and so on. We'll create specific programming for your needs, and if you want to venture out onto the web at large we'll rate a few thousand sites and wrap them in cotton wool so you don't have to feel anything whilst you are surfing.

I'm getting increasingly worried about this whole "choreographing the web" (as Microsoft put it) genre. Am I alone in not wanting a structured, giftwrapped Internet experience? Surely the fun, the adventure, the whole point of surfing is not knowing what you'll find or where you'll find it. The Internet is an experience, an information-go-zone, not a public library. What I want is the chance to explore, to discover new ideas, to build relationships with people I'd otherwise never meet. All these things are difficult to achieve whilst a Virtual Mother is holding your hand.

Virgin Net would seem to offer a heck of an easy route onto this highway of ours, but if the price of simplicity is a guided tour then I'm not sure I want to be in on the ride.


madivan said:

Is also another thing is taking into accounting...if is being online, is taking away experience of purchasing album. Is changing beyond recognising. Is ending of "cover art" as is knowing. Could being birth of new era in purchasing music, but is certain death of everything is knowing in old. Ivan Ivanovich

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The Virgin Radio site uses everything from Java to RealAudio, and uses them well. It's a sound website, and make no mistake.

Virgin Net Virgin Net brings a familiar brand to the net, but sometimes familiarity breeds contempt.

Wavey's Parting Shot

Whilst surfing the other day I came across a site dedicated to teaching the art of swearing in Swedish, which obviously has advantages over swearing in your native tongue. Firstly, recipients won't know you are swearing at them so you have less chance of being beaten to a small pulp by a large bloke; secondly, you can gloat in the knowledge that your superior brain power is being put to such an intellectual task. <irony detector on>

But this site is a prime example of the sort of thing that I wouldn't expect to find reviewed and presented to members of either MSN or Virgin Net, and that's a shame -- sometimes the oddest things can be amongst the most interesting.

Also in London:

Gordon Bennett, Cockney on the Net!
Davey Winder delivers a web-based lesson in the odd pleasures of the London Cockney accent.

dart - technology is power, get the point?
In his latest London Jam report, Davey Winder looks at DART - that's Disability Access to Resources in Technology, and reminds us that it is people that matter.

a novel ride underground
Davey Winder jumps onboard and rides Geoff Ryman's interactive online novel, 253, set on a London Underground Train, all the way to Elephant and Castle.

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