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Bad News for Good Geeks

Don't look for the tech-spending clouds to lift until next year. We asked visitors to Online when tech demand will rebound. Most people who answered our poll doubt predictions of a second-half upturn this year. Oh, the pain!

How long do you think it will be before the technology sector gets back to a normal level of growth?

Third quarter 2001: 5.8%

Fourth quarter 2001: 19.0%

First half 2002: 35.1%

Second half 2002: 24.4%

Later than that: 15.7%

Data: BusinessWeek Online and Online survey of 1448 readers, June-July 2001 A tech watchword is that you have to eat your own dogfood--that is, use products you make--if you want anyone else to. But top dogs of the wireless Web missed the memo. A study of 50 industry execs by venture capital firm ComVentures says that more than half do nothing on their cell phones but talk. And most use handheld computers only to check calendars or directions. Haven't these guys told us that consumers need wireless stock quotes, e-mail, and Web searches?

Why the disconnect? Teeny keyboards, itsy-bitsy screens, and pokey connection speeds make today's wireless devices a drag, says ComVentures partner Roland Van der Meer. Plus, today's gadgets have limited uses, so you often need more than one. Carrying three or four devices "isn't very convenient," says survey respondent Clark Dong, CEO of hereUare Communications Inc., a wireless-infrastructure company. Until the big dogs chow from their own bowls, don't expect the little ones to feed there either. Last year, Ethan Zuckerman was a poster boy for Web millionaires turning to good works. The 28-year-old founded Geekcorps, a Peace Corps-like crew that would bring technology to developing countries. In months, 700 volunteers signed up, and nearly as many reporters filed fawning stories. Zuckerman was even featured in a Dewar's whisky ad. But "that was when markets were good," he says.

Now, Geekcorps is running out of money, just like many of the dot-coms that inspired it. With cash tight, Geekcorps has sent only 14 geeks into the field--all in Ghana. Plans to enter a dozen Asian, African, and Latin American countries are on hold. Why? Corporate largesse has fallen through--though Zuckerman is still trying. In particular, talks with Lycos Inc. (LCOS)--which bought the Gen X community site from Zuckerman and his partners in 1998--collapsed in May. With what's left of $350,000 in funding from family and friends, "we can see through January," Zuckerman says. "Beyond that, it's tough going." As doing well online gets harder, doing good is no picnic, either.

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