Operator No. 9: August 20, 2001

Webvan Group, the ambitious online grocery service, is now all but gone.

Going, Going . . .

Webvan Group, the ambitious online grocery service, is now all but gone. All that remains is a little cleanup. The company set an Aug. 27 deadline for bids on its assets, but made a point of saying it didnt think it would make enough money to give anything back to its stockholders after paying off creditors. Webvan, which raised $1.3 billion from the stock market and investors, says it has $106 million in debt. The "centerpiece" of its assets is the technology platform it developed to manage its service, the company says. "Designed by some of Silicon Valleys top software engineers, the platform is modular in design, and as such is extremely versatile." Apparently not versatile enough to make the business a success.


"Government" and "cool" dont often intersect, but when they do, watch out. Apollo 13. The Internet. Yellowstone National Park. And now, HistoryWired: A Few of Our Favorite Things, which you can find at http://historywired.si.edu, a new site sponsored by the Smithsonian Institutions National Museum of American History. The site features 450 objects from the museums enormous collections — from Kermit the Frog to salsa queen Celia Cruzs shoes — that arent on physical display to museum visitors. Ive seen a few "virtual tours" of museums over the years, but this one is great. Liked Alexander Graham Bells 1876 "Box" telephone, which was registered under the most valuable patent ever issued by the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, according to the site. Among other things, I learned that in the patent application — No. 174,465 — it was described as "the method of, and apparatus for, transmitting vocal or other sounds telegraphically by causing electrical undulations, similar in form to the vibrations of the air accompanying the said vocal or other sounds." Like I said — cool.

Learning From Your Mistakes

From the Colorado Technology Summit: There are certain lessons one is never too young to learn. Intels Craig Barrett is probably one of the best speakers on the tech circuit because he isnt so arrogant as to think that hes the most interesting gig going. Most times, he brings along students who are working on particularly compelling projects. For the Colorado Tech Summit, he called on the Pine Creek Robotics Club to explain how they transformed $11,000 from Intel and a bucket of bolts into a competition-winning remote-controlled robot dubbed PolloLoco (CrazyChicken). After the kids finished their spiel, Barrett started quizzing some of the high-school-age team members about what they learned in the process. One boy, explaining that the initial design was flawed and a new robot had to be built in two days, volunteered that he had learned "how to deal with crisis management." "Youre not alone," Barrett intoned, "youre not alone."

More Hell on Earth(Link)

The DSL horror stories keep rolling in. Just heard from a senior citizen who woke up one day to find that even though she could receive e-mail over her EarthLink DSL connection, she could not send it. The EarthLink customer service wizards attempted to correct the problem — starting with reconfiguring her system so all the e-mail from the Trash file was restored and all the messages in the Inbox were deleted. After she found herself on hold several times, the tech support guys finally came back on and just threw up their hands. "We dont know whats wrong with it, and there is nothing more that we can do." Fortunately, this woman is a flexible character who is still familiar with the concept of handwritten correspondence — the kind that requires a postage stamp — and has taken to responding to her various Web pals with quick notes. Its a sad day indeed for DSL providers when the U.S. Postal Service can deliver your missives faster than e-mail.

IBM Cheers for Oracle?

Bullying and boorishness can only take you so far. That appears to be the lesson for Oracle, which announced last week that its latest- quarter revenue will likely be 10 percent less than that of the same period last year. The database giant has been beleaguered by bad news lately, including a front-page story in The Wall Street Journal about the shortcomings of the companys much-ballyhooed suite, Oracle 11i. The paper reported that the bug-ridden software has fallen far short of expectations and has alienated a growing number of clients. Larry Ellison, Oracles bearded bully-in-chief, dismisses all criticism, saying Oracle is stronger than ever. While that point is clearly debatable — the companys stock now trades at about $15 per share, down from nearly triple that price a year ago — Oracles masochism is welcomed by Steve Mills, who heads IBMs software group. Mills, who was attending the companys Solutions 2001 conference in San Francisco, said that Oracle has "helped our business tremendously by being a poor partner. We are happy they have done that. We invite them to continue to do that."

Is That the President in Your Pocket?

Youre no cigar-chomping oil baron, but now you can own a little piece of the 43rd U.S. president. Pocketpresident.com will sell you your very own 7-inch-tall cardboard cutout of George W. Bush for $3.95, so you can be sure that the president is securely in your pocket at all times. The snide site is the creation of Bill Shein, a Washington, D.C., comedy writer, who says hes sold about 1,000 Pocket Presidents so far. Although Pocketpresident isnt profitable yet — hey, its a dot-com — Shein plans to donate any profits to the Natural Resources Defense Council, an environmental advocacy group.


At a time when theres a lot of controversy about whether drivers should be banned from using their cell phones, Nextel Communications is introducing an interesting wireless service that lets its 1.5 million Web users access and manage their car insurance over their Internet-ready phones. Its all part of a deal with Progressive Casualty Insurance, which bills itself as the nations fourth-largest auto insurance company. "Wireless access to www.progressive.com gives Nextels customers the freedom to shop for and manage their vehicle insurance when and where they want," says Fred Khoury, Progressives wireless manager. That means being able to contact Progressive "for a quote, [to] buy a policy, make payments and policy changes, report claims or locate a nearby independent agent by entering a ZIP code." Watch out for that tree!


Been reading about the numerous dot-com auctions and the craze for office chairs. Not just any chairs, mind you, but "Aeron" chairs designed by Michigan design firm Herman Miller. The ergonomically correct chairs were referred to in one story I read as highly desirable "butt pedestals." While computers and other paraphernalia might not have fetched much during auctions of company assets, failed dot-coms were finding that the chairs, which retail for $700, have been selling for $350 a pop. By the way, observers are speculating that of Webvan Groups tangible assets, its cute little vans — which reportedly cost $70,000 each — might just draw the best bids.