[Cybertalk logo] Copyright (c) 1998 by Timothy C. Barmann. This article is intended for personal viewing only and may not be re-distributed in any form. Please e-mail link requests.

October 11, 1998

Cox launches R.I.- specific Web site

By Timothy C. Barmann

We all know there's no place like home.

And some believe that holds true even in cyberspace, where town lines and country borders evaporate.

You can travel just about anywhere over the Internet, but people log on, in part, to get information about their own communities. At least that's the thinking of large media and software companies that are investing heavily in developing Web sites that feature local content.

[Screen shot of Ocean State Online]
Cox Interactive Media's Ocean State Online has local news, weather, sports scores, movie times and locations, restaurant listings, driving directions and maps.
One of those companies, Cox Interactive Media, has just launched a Rhode Island-specific Web site called Ocean State Online, or oso.com.

The company is the corporate sibling to Cox Communications, the cable company that serves 90 percent of the state, and provides high-speed Internet service to about 3,000 Rhode Island subscribers.

Oso.com falls into an increasingly popular category of Web sites that serve as guides and providers of information about a certain community.

"What we're trying to become is the starting point for Rhode Islanders on the Web," said Tom Bates, general manager for the site. "At the very least, [be] a good hub for them."

Rhode Island already has a half-dozen of these sites, including sites by America Online and The Providence Journal.

There's nothing especially daring or unusual about the new Cox site, but it does a very good job of pulling together a lot of useful stuff about our little state.

Within a few mouse clicks are the standard fare for a community guide Web site: local news, weather, sports scores, movie times and locations, restaurant listings, driving directions and maps.

There are also a few quirky and fun things unique to the site, including a cartoon drawn by Charlie Hall of Ocean State Follies fame. There's also an "interactive" novel where visitors can vote on multiple choice outcomes of the story. You can also take a quiz about Rhode Island trivia. One of the "medium" hard questions: "The cliffs of Newport appear in the opening of what TV show?" Answer: Dark Shadows.

Bates said a key feature of the site is a search engine that lets you search 1,400 Rhode Island-related Web sites his staff has combed through. You can also expand searches to the entire Web.

I found the search feature somewhat confusing to use. It wasn't clear to me whether a search was limited to sites that oso.com found, or Web pages found on their own site. There seems to be too many options here that make me yearn for something simple, perhaps the way Yahoo! shows results of search queries.

The news headlines and brief stories appear to be updated more than once a day. Last week carried stories about the baseball playoffs and the game results were posted shortly after the games ended. News stories come from three sources: WLNE Channel 6, the local ABC affiliate; the Associated Press; and the Providence Business News.

You won't find in-depth news and feature stories here, such as those that are published on sites run by newspapers. That's because oso.com simply doesn't have the resources of a newspaper and it is trying to fulfill a different mission, said Bates, who is a former editor for USA Today's European edition.

"Most people start on the Web from a site like Yahoo!, or the AOL [America Online] home page," Bates said. "I think we can do better for Rhode Island than that."

Bates said an important component of oso.com will be Web sites and pages posted by local community groups. The site will give Web space to any noncommercial group. Oso.com has developed tools for posting Web pages that don't require any knowledge of HTML, the coding that makes headlines, paragraphs and other formatting. The apparent gesture of goodwill has obvious benefits for oso.com. If the site can establish itself as a gathering point or a sort of community square, it will get more visitors, which makes the site more appealing to advertisers.

And advertising is important, as it will provide the site's main revenue stream, Bates said.

A feature missing from the site that many so-called portal sites have is the ability to personalize the information presented on the front page. In other words, let's say you're only interested in news about developments in education, and you would rather know what the weather is like in Akron, Ohio, instead of Providence. Some of the larger sites will let you tailor the Web site to your liking, but oso.com doesn't offer that kind of flexibility yet.

Bates said some personalization features are being developed, including a personal portfolio. If it works like other sites, visitors will be able to set up a list of stocks and mutual funds they want to keep track of. Whenever you return to the site, you'll be able to see updated prices on the securities.

Right now, oso.com has a nice feature that lets you look at the stock prices of 50 publicly traded companies that are based in Rhode Island or have a major presence here.

Oso.com enters the field with some formidable competitors. America Online has launched a series of city-specific sites under the brand name "Digital City." There's one for Providence as well. Two other companies, Microsoft and CitySearch, also have sites scattered around the country for individual cities, but so far, neither company has built sites for the Rhode Island area.

A less sophisticated site in terms of design is Rhode Island Bestlinx. The site was built and is maintained by a single person -- Keith McCain. The site has links to about 1,800 sites that McCain has meticulously collected. He adds new listings each week.

Another competitor is this newspaper, which produces projo.com. That site highlights the news stories that are written by staffers of The Providence Journal, but it also has much of the same type of guide information found elsewhere.

"The next big battleground in the Internet is local [information]," said Peter Winter, president of Cox Interactive Media, who spoke to a group of technology writers in Austin, Texas, on Wednesday. "We need to be the number one provider of Internet content."

Winter's remarks surely signal that competition to offer Rhode Islanders more information about their community is picking up. The competitors no doubt will be trying to outdo each other, fighting for their share of the market. The winners: all of us.

Rhode Island-specific Web sites

Timothy C. Barmann is a Journal-Bulletin staff writer. His column runs every other Sunday on the Computers and Technology 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.