Dear Subscribers:Here's our lineup for this third week of January (can it be already?!):
- Health on the Web
- Web News Briefs: Ask Jeeves's sex question; Music's tectonic shift; Paperless books; Software for toddlers?; George Jetson's house; Sold on free ISPs?
- Online-safety update (with a bit of commentary)
- Consumer's-eye-view of AOL-Time Warner
- Going the way of Yahoo!?
- A subscriber writes
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Health on the Web
Just like medicines, health information should always be dated so we can tell if it has "expired." That's just one of the tips we've seen in several guides to health information on the Web. Here's a roundup of some current material on the subject.
In "Is the Web Bad for Your Health?," an exceedingly comprehensive piece (12 pages and 2 sidebars), PCWorld Online tells us there are more than 20,000 health-related Web sites now. It adds that some 26 million Americans, most of them women, visited health-related Web sites last year to figure out what ailed them. "Many found information that helped them make important decisions about their health care," PCWorld reports. "Others received advice that was outdated, misleading, or even dangerous."
So Dr. Peter Stuart, an attending physician at North Country Hospital in Newport, Vt. (who co-wrote the article with PCWorld executive editor Brad Grimes), personally visited and evaluated 11 of the most popular general health sites, as cited by Jupiter Communications, Media Metrix, and PC Data. Here's the page with Dr. Stuart's evaluation chart. One of the sidebars provides tips on how to look for reliable health information on the Web.
L.A. Times health columnist Marla Bolotsky, managing editor of online information for the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation, recently wrote a review of the popular WebMD site. An earlier, even more useful piece by Marla, "A Dose of Caution Required," has sunk deep into the L.A. Times online archive (the paper charges you to retrieve articles), but here's the basic message that we found useful: The more "altruistic" health sites, which don't accept advertising and say they have a mostly educational purpose, "often don't have the resources to keep critical information up to date," Ms. Bolotsky wrote. "The commercial health sites "run the risk that business considerations will influence content." Then, she adds, sometimes the distinctions between the two aren't so clear. She mentions three "watchdogs" trying to divine the differences and steer us to reliable information:
- An alliance of 16 large health sites called Health Internet Ethics says it's developing a code of ethical conduct for dissemination of "reliable, safe, trustworthy" health information over the Internet (here's a Wired News item on their November '99 announcement).
- The Federal Trade Commission has published consumer guidelines to help limit health fraud on the Net. [After extensive searching in the FTC.gov site, we haven't been able to turn up those guidelines, so we'll contact the FTC via phone (perish the thought!), and get you that URL as soon as we have it.]
- The Internet Healthcare Coalition, made up of Internet companies and medical and consumer groups, offers tips to help evaluate health information on the Web.
Then there's Uncle Sam's stab at presenting sound health info on the Net. Instead of getting into the Pandora's box of evaluating commercial health sites, the US Department of Health and Human Services has put up healthfinder. The goal of this "gateway consumer health information site," the Department says, is "to improve consumer access to selected health information from [more than 1,400] government agencies, their many partner organizations, and other reliable sources that serve the public interest." We have to tell ya, though: We typed "chicken pox" into the search engine and turned up zero matches (we did better with "measles").
As for sites based outside the US, Prime Minister Tony Blair himself unveiled the online version of Britain's National Health Service, "NHS Direct", which includes "an easy-to-use guide to treating 20 common health problems at home." According to Wired News, the site is part of the government's effort to modernize the NHS, which serves 90% of the United Kingdom's population and is the country's largest HMO. Another part of this effort is a 24-hour "nurse-led" phone hotline, a health advice and information service that the site says is already accessible to 30 million people and will be available to all of England by the end of this year. Wouldn't it be amazing if such a service were to go online, with 24-hour coverage of email inquiries from anywhere? Hard to imagine any single government paying for such a service, but we could imagine an international coalition of health-care, relief, and funding agencies making it happen someday!
Finally, it would be unrealistic to ignore e-commerce in this story. Forrester Research says 32% of online consumers are already shopping for health products on the Web, and healthcare "will reach $370 billion in online transactions by 2004." The Web, Forrester predicts, "will become the foundation for a new healthcare industry infrastructure that supports complex, multiparty transactions among consumers, providers, insurers, and medical suppliers." Hang on to your hats!
Do email us if any of you have had good (or not-so-good) health info-gathering times on the Web - via firstname.lastname@example.org. With your permission, we like to share your trailblazing experiences.
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Web News Briefs
- Jeeves's question of sex on the Web
Ask Jeeves - the company that created the human-language search engine best known for the straight-laced English butler who "presides" over it - is thinking about venturing into the world of online sex. The high-profile company is "considering plans for separate sexually themed search results, possibly under the auspices of a different character, Web site, and brand altogether," reports CNET. Ask Jeeves senior vice president Ted Briscoe told CNET the company had done " 'a lot of research' on different business models and ways to restructure its sex-related offerings, which now range from basic sex information sites to pornography." CNET says Jeeves isn't alone - Yahoo! and AOL-owned Netscape's Open Directory Project are among other directory and Web navigation sites that "offer extensive pornography and other sex listings." Analysts quoted in the article make some interesting points about the dilemma Ask Jeeves faces in providing this service, but their arguments are more about the impact on the friendly butler brand. We think there's another important dilemma here: a possible step toward the mainstreaming of material on the Web that is, at least right now, far from mainstream in the conventional public media - in the United States and many other countries. But are we being too straight-laced? Tell us what you think!
Meanwhile, Ask Jeeves reported a smaller-than-expected 4th-quarter loss and a surge in revenues growth, CNET reports in a separate story.
- Music's tectonic shift
Judging by what MP3.com is up to, pretty soon we'll be buying a music service rather than music products (like CDs). According to Wired News, MP3.com has developed a music subscription service, whereby consumers can listen to their personal music collections from anywhere, via any device connected to the Net. They'll also be able to "buy" a CD from one of MP3.com's music retail partners, then listen to it right away with the company's new "Instant Listening Service," using their My.MP3.com accounts. Instead of actually buying a physical CD, what consumers will really be doing is buying "permission" to listen to the music on that CD anytime, anywhere. It "lives" at MP3.com; the user never actually downloads anything (this is also a neat way to keep the music industry happy and its lawyers at bay). It does look as if this concept won't be mass-market until computers or other Net-connected devices have replaced stereo systems as the focus of music enjoyment, but MP3.com is banking on the idea that popularity will grow as people can access the Net on demand, with or without wires.
Something to think about: Are we consumers up to the challenge of not needing to handle an actual physical object when we make a purchase? This moves us beyond the experience of purchasing and downloading software to buying something we don't even store on our own hard drives. What do you think? Do email us. [For more on music as a service rather than a product, see a Wired News interview with Jim Griffin, former chief technology officer at Geffen Records.]
- Paperless books
Books are no longer bound by their bindings, according to one of publishing's elder statesmen, Jason Epstein of Random House. He told Wired News that the future of publishing is on the Internet, where books can be printed on demand. Indeed, Wired reports in another article that Microsoft (with its free Reader software) has teamed up with Barnes and Noble to sell paper-free books. Microsoft says e-book sales will reach $1 billion in three to four years. But Random House's Epstein has a slightly different vision: a consortium of publishers that would create a Web-based annotated index of all books in print. The consortium "would fulfill print-on-demand orders, eliminating unsold copies and returns, which are a big concern for traditional publishers," Wired reports. Epstein also envisions authors who no longer need publishers, who communicate directly with their readers.
In a related story, the New York Times covers the "evolving market for e-titles," including one university library with a $1 million budget for digital books.
- Software for toddlers?
This piece in PCWorld, provides anecdotal evidence only, but it's fun to read! Writer Gene Emery conducted a little (un)scientific experiment. He tried three CD-ROMs for toddlers - from The Learning Company, Sesame Street, and Disney - out on a little 21-month-old who "already knows all her colors and shapes and loves books, but had no experience with computers." We won't tell you his conclusion, but we will say that Theresa really enjoyed tapping away on the keyboard and watching what happened on the screen. It was putting the two together that didn't quite happen.
- George Jetson's house
Pretty soon your house won't need you anymore, says Wired News. Your refrigerator will order the groceries, and your coffeepot will know how much coffee to brew. In other words, your whole house will be as user-friendly as your toaster - maybe your VCR included! If you like gadgetry or domestic futurism, this is a fun article. The New York Times chimes in with a report on a real smart-alecky house - that of investment manager and philanthropist George Soros in Manhattan.
- Sold on free ISPs?
MSNBC has the best article we've seen yet on the new free-ISP groundswell, starting with one Massachusetts user's personal experience with NetZero. In this piece you'll also get the "price" of connecting for free (being forced to click on ads periodically), this development's origins in Europe, a look at whether free connectivity will be AOL's "Waterloo" (hard to imagine), a glance at the eight major providers in this category (plus links), and a bit on general consumer acceptance.
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Online-safety update (w/ a touch of commentary)
We think it's important to give you an update every now and then on the latest online-safety information for home and classroom. Here are several great resources that have arrived on the Web of late, plus a bit of editorializing from Net Family News editor Anne Collier:
"Meet the Safe Net Keeper," a profile of SafeKids's Larry Magid, leads an information-packed Safety section in FamilyPC. Larry's online-safety tips have appeared in many places on and off the Web - and they're here, too - but a profile is a nice change because it helps people understand where his expertise comes from. It wasn't just concern for his own children that got him started down this road, but he'll be the first to tell you that he continues to learn a lot about how to deal with kids on the Internet from the people in his own house. And that's an important model to highlight. Our children are usually our best teachers as we learn the online part of parenting, because:
- The simple fact that they know as much as, often more than, we know about the Net, and they usually have more time to keep up with all the changes on it. (And learning shoulder-to-shoulder - within reason and when time allows - is a wonderful opportunity for parent-child communication, not to mention a child's confidence-building and mutual respect.)
- Our parents and grandparents couldn't pass down to us any wisdom about the online part of parenting - though what we did get from them certainly helps, as our Subscriber Survey shows.
- There are still few experts in online-parenting "out there." So we're learning as we go and can increasingly benefit from each other's expertise.
But back to the FamilyPC resource. There's a lot of good material pulled together here. [One caveat: None of it is dated, except for the day's date at the top of each page, which changes each day automatically, so we can't tell exactly how current some of it is.]
One of the articles is "Tech Tips for Safe Surfing" - conveniently presented on a scale of low- to high-tech. There are also useful reviews of seven client-based filtering tools (those that are installed on one's own PC). Keep in mind, though, that these are only client-based tools.
Watching developments in this area, we're seeing the beginnings of a trend: Hybrid filtering tools (client- and server-based software) and filtered ISPs (which are server-based only) are overtaking client-based-only as the most effective way to keep up with the lightning-speed growth of the Web. Hybrid and ISP filtering is constantly updated at the server level, eliminating the need for users to keep having to order or download software upgrades. Examples of hybrids are ClickChoice's myFilter (see our review), BrowseSafe's PlanetGood, and Surf Monkey. We also like server-based DotSafe (reviewed with Surf Monkey) because its filtering criteria are agnostic - matched to the values of public media outlets in the US (TV, radio, magazines, newspapers). We think this freedom from political and religious agendas makes the service more useful to schools and libraries than the many filtered ISPs that do have such affiliations.
Another valuable resource for parents is a study recently published by the Center for Media Education. The appendices of "Youth Access to Alcohol and Tobacco Web Marketing: The Filtering and Rating Debate" include a Filtering Technology Inventory (p. 56 of the PDF version, which can be downloaded with the free Acrobat Reader). There are also evaluations, on p. 76, of some client-based software tools - Cyber Patrol, Cyber Sentinel, CYBERsitter, Net Nanny, Surf Watch, and X-Stop (for any comparisons you'd like to make, FamilyPC tested all but X-Stop).
Lists of client-based tools and server-based services (filtered ISPs) can be found at SafeKids.com, and a searchable database of such tools and services lives at GetNetWise.org. Both have tool descriptions, those in GetNetWise provided by the toolmakers themselves. Neither site endorses any product.
The best endorsement is yours! If your family, classroom, or school has arrived at what you feel is a great online-safety solution, please tell us what it is and why you like it.
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Consumer's-eye-view of AOL/Time Warner
The Center for Media Education and consumer groups have issued a statement voicing their concerns about an AOL-Time Warner merger that makes AOL "the leader in high-speed Internet services … by buying the very cable wire that it once said represented unfair competition to AOL." The group said it will ask the US Federal Communications Commission to start a rule-making proceeding that requires open Internet access. The statement continued, "We will also ask the FCC to review its new ownership rules, which could enable AOL, Time Warner, and AT&T to preserve anticompetitive ownership ties of cable companies that serve more than half of all consumers and control the most popular cable TV programming and Internet services."
In other coverage of history's largest merger, you may also be interested to know that SafeKids's Larry Magid interviewed AOL CEO Steve Case about it for LookSmart Radio. He also wrote a commentary on the subject - and on his 3 a.m. wakeup call from CBS Radio last Monday - for Upside magazine.
Going the way of Yahoo!?
It looks like another article about the AOL/Time Warner deal, but it's really about the Internet's non-commercial roots and where the medium's headed. For us, the most interesting part of Denise Caruso's "Digital Commerce" column in the New York Times is the part about the Open Directory Project - and the irony that this grassroots project, which is so anathema to a merger by two media giants that is all about controlling the Internet, will actually be owned by them. It's also the best part of her column because - if you and your children or students don't know about the Project - you should; it's a useful research tool.
The Open Directory Project, Denise writes, is "the only free, resolutely anticommercial, openly available human-edited directory of sites on the World Wide Web." First called Newhoo, it was the brainchild of three Sun Microsystems programmers who saw it as the answer to Yahoo!'s increasing commercialization (and growing number of dead links). They used Linus Torvald's model of putting part of the kernal code of an operating system (Linux) up on the Web so other programmers could build the OS by adding their own code. Newhoo's founders built an open system that allowed volunteer editors to review and stock the directory. Denise reports that they had 200 editors within two weeks of launch, and now there are 21,500.
[Parents probably want to know that, according to CNET, the Open Directory Project, like Yahoo!, "offers extensive pornography and other sex listings."]
The irony is, the Project, bought by Netscape right before AOL bought Netscape, will soon be owned by AOL/Time Warner (or whatever the new company will call itself). AOL's ownership doesn't necessarily mean the Project will lose its grassroots nature and subsequent effectiveness (the way its founders felt Yahoo! had), but it's a good case study-in-process for Internet commercialization watchers! And if any of you DMOZ.org users notice any changes, do give us a headsup and tell us what's going on there.
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A subscriber writes
We're always delighted when we hear the newsletter is helpful to a teacher! Here are kind words from history teacher Byron in Puerto Rico, who knows he's not alone in the technology-integration struggle:
"Thank you so much for your fine newsletter. I am a teacher struggling to deal with the integration of technology into my classroom and at the same time working to ensure student safety on the Internet. I also am writing grants for increased technology and appreciate all of the articles you include with statistics about Internet usage, etc. Keep up the great work, and I look forward to upcoming issues."
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That does it for this week. Have a great weekend!
Net Family News
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