World Wide ... What? The Internet’s 10 Worst Ideas

Remember ill-fated plans to develop alternative currencies for the Web? Or Swatch’s idea: a dedicated Internet time zone? Thanks, but no thanks. We sort through the dot-bomb failures to find the truly worst Internet ideas -- and what we’ve learned from each. By Sarah Pike


    Something for Nothing

    New York City is full of people with more money than time. Enter, the delivery service that delivered just about anything to your fifth-floor walkup studio. A six-pack of beer and a romantic comedy? Just a pack of Juicy Fruit gum? No problem! Or was it? Thing is, the start-up would waste delivery resources on a single pack of gum -- and promotions drained the company further. To widespread urban weeping, Kozmo ceased deliveries in 2001.  Lesson learned: Speedy delivery requires a hefty surcharge.

    Internet Time?

    The Egyptians employed obelisks to keep time via the sun’s shadow as early as 3500 B.C. We use mechanical and quartz timepieces, but the time they keep is still based on the sun. “Too primitive!” said Swiss watch company Swatch. So in 1998, Swatch initiated Internet time, or “.beats.” .Beat time does not recognize time zones: A day has 1,000 .beats and begins at @000 .beats, BMT. (That's Biel Meantime after the headquarters in Switzerland, not the actress.) To this day, we’ve never heard anyone ask, “It’s @833; do you know where your children are?”  Lesson learned: Don’t snub the Sun.

    Internet Currency

    Would you like to pay for that in Flooz gift certificates? How about Beenz frequent-surfer points? Both companies wanted to create a special form of currency, just for the Web. Luckily, you don’t have to choose between them; both companies went out of business abruptly, largely without compensating their unfortunate customers.  Lesson learned: You can’t persuade people to use funny money unless they have to use it to buy something they really, really want. Like Xbox games.

    My So-Called Internet

    Back in the mid-1990s, America Online set lots of us up on a blind date with the Internet via a seemingly endless stream of free CDs. AOL was banking on most of us not knowing what the real Internet looked like. AOL’s software “protected” its users from having to enter URLs or see every website -- or take responsibility for deleting their own mail, instead the service automatically deleted it for you after a while.   Lesson learned: Actually, sending dozens of CDs to every mailing address in the country promising hours and hours of “free” worked just fine. But walling people off from the full Internet? That didn't last.

    'Push' Technology

    After years of broadband Internet and fast Pentium processors, we forget a time when plain-text websites took a minute and a half to load. Into that world, PointCast debuted its push technology screensaver, designed to display news (and ads) while your computer protected your monitor from screen burn-in. However, even corporate networks couldn’t bear the download load. At the time, the service was incredibly frustrating.  Lesson learned: Wait for the infrastructure.

    Hold for Your Rebate

    An Internet retailer offering electronics items for lots of money? But wait, CyberRebate didn’t compete on price -- it offered huge rebates that could knock up to 100 percent off that cost. You just had to buy and wait…and wait past the 10 to 14 weeks the company told you to wait…and then wait some more…and finally, litigate. CyberRebate evidently centered its business model around the common wisdom that many consumers never get around to sending in rebate forms. The company filed for bankruptcy in 2001, $59 million behind on rebate issuances.  Lesson learned: Never count on people not to ask for money you owe them.


    CentMail is a nice idea on several levels. The theory: Paying even a single cent to send an e-mail differentiates the real stuff from spam. CentMail’s twist: The penny goes to charity. The problem: If the program isn’t 100 percent global, it’s pointless for spam prevention. Nevertheless, CentMail and its ilk haven’t failed; schemes keep popping up and then fading away.  Lesson learned: Spam is just a new way to deliver the same kind of scams humans have been using to prey on other humans throughout history. There simply may not be a way to stop it.

    We'll Pay You to Surf didn’t pay much -- a few bucks a week, maybe -- and its scheme was something like the reason we now use antispyware software. You downloaded a toolbar that monitored your surfing, and in return you received some revenue from ads. The other part of the scheme was recruiting more users to download the toolbar, making the scheme look somewhat pyramid-shaped.  Lesson learned: Instead of paying customers a few bucks to download and promote your spyware, pretend you’re offering free porn.

    Clicks for Kitties is a classic Internet boom tale, and considering that there are several online pet supply companies in business in 2010, we think could have made it, given the change. With its iconic sock puppet mascot and a popular product, came on the scene too early and was emblematic of the worst way to do business -- pour every dime into advertising and go public before becoming profitable. Lesson learned: Timing is everything. Internet timing, doubly so.

    Honor Among ... Legitimate Downloaders

    Sure, there are legitimate, legal uses for peer-to-peer services. notable distributes its free office suite that way. But we all know that much of the data shared is illegal, which makes the Tribler scheme for granting social "trust points" to responsible uploaders (as opposed to those who steal music and run, minimizing their illegal uploading) -- sound a little like entrapment.  Prediction: Tribler is a fairly new site, so it’s hard to say, but an idea developed to facilitate an increasingly prosecuted and illegal online activity seems like it might be a lesson waiting to happen.
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