Web Surfers for Hire

SAN FRANCISCO (03/07/2000) - Search engines got you lost? Automated phone services got your goat? INetNow puts human intelligence to work for wireless Web surfers wary of help without the human touch.

Starting this week, you can call a beta version of the service on a toll-free number to reach a live INetSurfer, who will research topics from Druids to Dow Jones. The service gives directions, books a flight, or shops for you online for a fee.

"We connect people with actual humans that understand the Internet and--most importantly--what you're saying," says Lenny Young, president of INetNow.

He says INetNow targets mobile professionals disenchanted by the automated services offered by TellMe.com, TelSurf Networks, and Shoutmail.com.

These computerized services give telephone access to e-mail, stock quotes, and limited Web pages using voice-recognition and text-to-speech technology.

INetNow relies on human helpers to read online articles, check a Web-based calendar, add an appointment, or read and answer e-mail.

The first 5000 people who join INetNow get a free three-month account. The company expects to launch formally this month, and will then charge about 45 cents per minute (or $27 per hour) to rent a surfer.

My own Personal Web Serf

I joined by phone, but could have registered online. I gave my name, address, and phone number. An INetSurfer requested my credit-card number to authenticate my age, bill me when fees kick in, and make online purchases.

Young says personal information and passwords are absolutely private.

Armed with a personal Web surfer, I put INetNow to the test. First, I asked INetNow to find an out-of-print book. Not a slouch when it comes to Web searches myself, I found a used edition at BarnesandNoble.com for $20.

INetNow found the book as quickly, but for only $6 from UsedBooks.com. I asked INetNow to buy it for me, but the surfer declined because the seller isn't one of its 40 partner vendors.

Next, I asked INetNow to tell me presidential-hopeful John McCain's stance on Net taxes. Within five minutes of my telephoned request, a researcher called with an excerpt from San Francisco Business Times and e-mailed me the story.

Finally, an INetNow surfer read my e-mail to me and took dictation for a response. I confess I felt a tad squeamish about divulging my password to a stranger.

The Human Touch

INetNow plans to add a Web-based personal information manager you can synchronize with a PC or handheld, as well as a call connection service. You'll call a toll-free line for connection to anyone in your address book, for an undetermined fee.

INetNow competes with Quixi, which offers around-the-clock human help for $20 per month. But cheaper second-tier services abound.

TelSurf, launching a free ad-supported telephone-based service in April, will read your e-mail using text-to-voice software. You get audio access to a calendar, weather reports, directions, and stock quotes--for 6 cents per minute, if you don't want the ads.

It's too early to say if people will pay a premium for human help, says Callie Pottorf, an IDC analyst. Many may opt for automation, not wanting strangers to thumb through their e-mail or calendar.

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