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September 14, 1997

Internet entrepreneurs already
cashing in on Diana's death

By Timothy C. Barmann

It was only a matter of time.

Shortly after Princess Diana's tragic death, a new breed of entrepreneurs emerged, hoping to cash in on the avalanche of public interest in her life and death.

You can bid on the stamps being sold by one collector through an Internet discussion group with pictures of Diana and Prince Charles from their engagement.

And, for $7, plus $3 shipping, you can have a Princess Diana Memorial Magnet, which is ready for your refrigerator. ("They really came out cool," promises the seller who lives in Bellevue, Wash.)

Then there are the Princess Diana-related Internet domain names for sale. Any of these will let you offer your very own Princess Diana Web site.

But it will cost you.

One seller, who lists his address as a post office box in Israel, is selling candleinthewind.net, $10,000; diana-1961to1997.com, $25,000 (negotiable), dianaprincessofwales.com, $25,000 (also negotiable), and goodbyeenglishrose.com, $10,000.

If he does have any takers, he will be pocketing a lot of cash -- the domain names were registered at a cost of $100.

Another domain-name broker, Steven Weber of Souderton, Pa., is selling Princess-Of-Wales.com and 9 others for $500 each. He defends using Diana's death to make money.

"What's wrong with that?" Weber wrote in an E-mail message in response to a question I sent him. "People have been making a profit off the deaths of others for a very long time. Graceland probably earns more money than most Fortune 500 companies. You can find memorabilia of Elvis, Marilyn, JFK and many others in most shopping malls. `May he without sin cast the first stone.' "

Eric Robichaud says he sees it differently. His company, Rhode Island Soft Systems, of Woonsocket, has just released the "Princess Diana Tribute Screen Saver."

But his eight-employee company won't directly profit from the computer program, because they are giving it away.

"We just don't want to be making money off of a tragedy," Robichaud explained. "That's not why we did this."

A screen saver is a program that takes over your computer screen after you leave the machine alone for a set time. The original purpose was to protect the monitor from being "burned-in" by whatever was being displayed. Modern computer monitors aren't susceptible to burn-in, but screen savers have stuck around and evolved into entertaining animations and slide shows.

The Princess Diana screen saver is tasteful. It's essentially a fancy slide show that displays 20 color pictures of Diana in various situations -- at several charity functions, with her children, with Prince Charles, with the queen and royal family. The photos fade in and fade out as a soundtrack of sentimental music plays in the background. The music is an original composition recorded for the screen saver by a Minnesota group that has worked with Rhode Island Soft Systems in the past.

Robichaud said his wife, Becky, who handles the books for the company, and Bill Dickson, the company's marketing manager, came up with the idea as a result of the huge outpouring of sympathy.

"We realized this is huge," said Eric Robichaud.

"Yeah, we can do it. We have the capability. We probably should. We're positioned to do it. We could do it right."

Rhode Island Soft Systems has already made a name for itself making screen savers. It has released two enormously popular screen savers: "Hey Macaroni!," which shows animated macaroni noodles dancing to the Macarena dance, and "Teethson-Holyear" screen saver, a spoof on Mike Tyson chomping off Evander Holyfield's ear.

After a late evening of programming at home, Robichaud began to work the phones the next to get photographs of Princess Diana. After striking out with USA Today, he turned to United Press International, the wire service based in Washington, D.C.

Robichaud said there was some reluctance at UPI over using its photos. If the screen saver wasn't done right, it could have looked tacky, he said. He assured UPI that it would be "classy" and that if they didn't like the final product, they could pull their photos.

Within an hour, Robichaud had negotiated a deal. He wouldn't say how much Rhode Island Soft Systems paid for the 20 photos, except that it was "significantly less" than the $3,000 that UPI initially wanted. The photos started streaming in to the Woonsocket company's computers about an hour after he first contacted UPI.

After two long days and late nights of work, they finished on the day before Diana's funeral. They sent the final product to UPI and waited.

An hour later Robichaud got the call. They loved it.

The Princess Diana screen saver has become an instant hit. It is featured on the home pages of several major software and shareware sites, including Ziff Davis's ZDnet, Shareware.com, CMP publications's File Mine, and others. Last weekend alone, more than 30,000 people downloaded the program over the Internet.

Robichaud said that from the outset, the company decided to make the screen saver free.

"This was not a good business move as far as profit and loss." He acknowledges, though, that his company will garner publicity as the screen saver bearing its name gets loaded on computers all around the country and the world.

"It was a matter of public relations, a good-will type thing, maybe an exposure thing," he said. "Whoever downloads it now has heard of us. But that's certainly not a way to build a business."

You can download the free Princess Diana Tribute Screen Saver, which runs on Microsoft Windows-based machines, from http://www.screensaver.com. It's a 2.8 megabyte file that takes about 20 minutes to download with a 28.8 Kbps modem.

Computer calendar

Tuesday -- A representative from Fleet Bank will demonstrate PC Banking at the monthly meeting of the PC Users Group, at 7 p.m., in the East Conference Rm. of the Community College of Rhode Island, Warwick. The meeting is free. At 6:30 p.m., there will be a general discussion, along with a question-and-answer session. For more information, see the group's Web site at http://users.ids.net/~loussn/pcug.htm, or contact Louis Stein at 739-2810, or send e-mail louisstein@aol.com.

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.