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June 22, 1997

Web entrepreneur aims to
simplify search for resources

By Timothy C. Barmann

Sam Fahmy's claim to fame was the live broadcast over the Internet of his own wedding that took place in Turkey last year. He and his bride, Handan Saygin, invited friends, family and the rest of the world to watch a live video of the event through a World Wide Web site Fahmy had set up in Providence.

The event garnered so much attention that Fahmy's Web site was flooded with visitors.

Now, Fahmy, a 35-year-old Providence entrepreneur, can only hope his latest venture will draw as much attention.

He's started a new business called Channels Internet, which consists of an Internet cafe-style store on the East Side, and a Web site designed to steer new users to the most useful Internet sites.

The site (http://www.channelsinternet.com/) is intended to be a starting point to some of the Internet's vast resources. "Some" is the key word.

The company's literature claims that it's difficult to find the resources on the Web that have the greatest value.

The Channels site presents the Web neatly packaged under a dozen categories or "channels," including investing, bookstore, shopping, automobiles, careers, sports, news, entertainment and directory.

Fahmy said he has a staff of eight "experts" who comb through the Web, looking only for the best resources to put under those headings.

"Users are frustrated with the chaos of the Internet, and search engines offer little value in directing them to what's truly beneficial," he said.

He's got a point. For example, if one wanted to look up a movie review, the Web index site Yahoo! presents 369 links under its "movie review" heading. By contrast, Channels presents just two links. One of them, a site called "Cinemachine" indeed is a good place to get movie reviews. It lets you enter the title of a film and then leads you to a number of different reviews by a variety of sources, including Time magazine, the Chicago Sun-Times and Microsoft's movie site.

Of course, the downside to Channels is that the diversity of the Web can't possibly fit under these 12 headings. That's why sites such as Yahoo! are so popular. And, because of the sheer size of the Web, it will be difficult -- if not impossible -- to continually keep track of the "best" resources.

The danger here, as with any site that mixes advertising with content, is that advertisers will influence what information is presented. Fahmy said there is a strict "Chinese wall" at Channels, which separates marketing interests from editorial decisions, much like the separation that exists at newspapers.

But one of the channels on the company's Web site raises questions about how effective that Chinese wall has been.

That channel, called "directory" is the only one of the 12 channels that doesn't link to multiple resources on the Web. It leads to only one -- Switchboard, a huge site that can search for home addresses and telephone numbers. Switchboard is a great site, but it certainly is not the only major directory that's highly useful. Missing are other useful directory sites such as Four11, which provides a way to search for e-mail addresses of thousands of Internet users.

Channels has a business relationship with Switchboard. Both companies promote each other's Web sites, and a product manager at Switchboard is one of six people that sit on Channels board of advisers, according to Channels' literature.

Fahmy said the business relationship came after Switchboard was selected to be listed by the company's research team. Channels does approach the sites it selects to see if they are interested in co-marketing agreements, but only after the Channels researchers choose to list them, he said.

The reason that no other directory service is listed, Fahmy said, goes back to the company's basic premise that people want the best information with as little effort as possible.

"People want in one click to really do something," he said. "The more you minimize the choice, the more you are providing value."

Maybe. But a little variety of resources never hurts and shows you are not being swayed by a particular advertiser.

The other half of the business is a store at 272 Thayer St. that is a cross between an Internet cafe (it has pastries, iced cappuccino and bottled water among other things), a computer newsstand (computer magazines and software) and a software store.

There are 25 Macintosh computers wired to the Internet via a high-speed link. Four of those terminals are set aside for free limited use -- browsers are limited to exploring four pre-selected sites, including sites by the New York Times and this newspaper.

Beyond that, surfers will have to pay up to $8 an hour for access, and somewhat less if you pay for a chunk of time in advance.

Fahmy has big plans for Channels -- he wants to open 30 stores worldwide by the end of next year. He hopes to make money by selling advertising on the Channels Web site and by the access fees he collects from the store.

He also plans to launch a service in a few weeks that would generate a simple Web site for a business at a cut-rate price.

As for the Channels Web site, there are indeed some good resources listed there. But by making marketing deals with sites the company has picked out as "most useful," Channels runs the risk of becoming just another "cyber mall" Web site, which charges stores to be listed.

Those directory sites have failed, for the most part, for a simple reason: Most people are smart enough to know when they are being herded by marketing ploys.

Timothy C. Barmann is a Journal-Bulletin staff writer. His column runs every other Sunday on the On Line page. Send him comments via e-mail at tim@cybertalk.com or U.S. mail, c/o the Journal-Bulletin, 75 Fountain St., Providence, R.I. 02902.