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IN 1994, JOURNALIST HOWARD Rheingold made a name for himself with the book The Virtual Community, in which he investigated the sociology and future of special-interest discussion groups on the Internet. Now, Rheingold is taking the next step and co-founding a new type of Web-based community that, unlike most, will seek to make a profit.

Called Electric Minds, Rheingold's new company in Mill Valley, Calif., is backed by, among others, Japanese publisher Softbank and U S West. Starting in September, it plans to get people around the world involved in an array of ongoing discussions about what new digital technologies are doing for and to society. How will they affect commerce, for instance, and how might they improve education? Participation will be open to anyone, but a group of online moderators and editors will keep the ball rolling by highlighting particularly interesting statements and attempting to stamp out annoying "flame wars." They'll also dole out one-time payments of $25 and give $1,000 monthly retainers to strong contributors.

Revenues? Electric Minds will take some paid screen advertising. But mostly, it plans to sell sponsorships to corporations, which may get their scientists and engineers to participate in discussions, and sell condensed versions of its various discussions to other Web sites that want to draw more visitors.EDITED BY JOHN W. VERITYReturn to top


NEW SCHEMES ARE BECOMING available for sending and receiving voice messages across the Internet--at considerable savings over long-distance telephone services.

Norris Communications Corp. in San Diego has come out with a version of its handheld Flashback digital voice recorder that works with Internet E-mail (photo). First, you record speech on a removable, chip-based memory cartridge. Then, you plug that cartridge into a separate gizmo, which itself plugs into the PCMCIA slot on your laptop computer. A program in the PC attaches voice messages to outgoing E-mail. By using two popular file formats, .WAV and .NFS, the messages can be listened to on any PC with the appropriate software. The full setup is scheduled to ship in mid-September, listing at $549 for 18 minutes of recording time and $599 for 36 minutes.

JFAX Personal Telecom, meanwhile, is rolling out a service that delivers voice mail and faxes via E-mail. For $12.50 a month, customers are assigned a phone number and a virtual mailbox on the World Wide Web that accepts standard phone calls and faxes. Using JFAX's viewer software on their IBM-compatible PC or Apple Macintosh (available at no charge at, customers located anywhere on the Internet can reach out and listen to or view messages retrieved from their mailbox.EDITED BY JOHN W. VERITYReturn to top

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A PALO ALTO (CALIF.) COMPANY is setting up an ambitious business-to-business electronic-commerce service for launch late this year. For a monthly service fee and about 32 cents per item, EC Co. will transfer purchase orders, invoices, and other electronic documents between trading partners' accounting systems. The system will also help each partner's bank handle electronic payments.

The key is the central computer server that EC plans to run. It's designed to overcome incompatibilities between most of the popular accounting programs in use today by automatically translating their peculiar document formats. In the past, electronic-commerce networks have required participants to use standardized formats. EC's computer will also help trading partners locate and qualify each other by listing their products, banking partners, and computer setup.

EC has raised $4.5 million in private backing so far. To help build a critical mass of participants, it plans to give away a basic, Windows-based software package that will help any company receive transactions from EC's private network. It is also planning to share commissions with banks and accounting software companies that recommend its services to their customers.EDITED BY JOHN W. VERITYReturn to top

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