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Technology / AI and automation

TRIBAL VOICE: JOHN MCAFEE’S INTERNET RAIN DANCE

If you’d driven around the US for a year in a Winnebago as you recovered from a mild heart attack visiting various Native American communities you might have come up with the idea of PowWow – if you were also a software genius, that is. The fact that you’d also founded McAfee Associates Inc, which post merger is now Network Associates Inc (CI No 3,302) and had a big stack of Dead Presidents in the bank wouldn’t have hurt either. So when John McAfee, who founded the successful antivirus outfit back in 1986, but who stepped down in favor of Bill Larson four years ago, finally found a town in the shadow of Pike’s Peak in beautiful Colorado that he liked the look of, it didn’t take him that long to put it all together. Soon he had a team to build a software product that merged his ideas about the internet being an embodiment of Native American philosophies, shareware, communication and the creation of online communities, and, to be sure, a way to make an honest dollar – a few million times over. The company he put together to do this he named Tribal Voice, Inc, in keeping with his liking for things Indian, but also as a nod to the ’80s term ‘tribes,’ or virtual communities, as talked about during the earlier days of the internet. McAfee’s track record meant that since 1995 the company has attracted a lot of venture capital interest, culminating in him being able to sell fifty per cent of his startup to two such companies last year for $10m. And this for a company that has made pretty much nil dollar sales so far, it all being free, remember. Now McAfee has kicked himself upstairs to become chair, where up until last August he was both CEO and CTO, those roles being filled by two outsider executives, former Encyclopedia Britannica CEO Joe Esposito, who has become president and chief executive officer, and Nigel Thompson from Microsoft Corp. A third executive, with more direct Silicon Valley experience, is Richard Dym, VP marketing, who was formerly with troubled Parcplace-Digitalk Inc, now ObjectShare Inc (CI No 3,221). And expect a full formal launch of Tribal Voice in the next couple of months with these heavy hitters leading the charge.

By Gary Flood

So, yes, great – but what the hell do these guys do, you ask? Well, it does take some working out. And at first glance this reporter was frankly weirded out by the company’s web site, which sadly or not will be history by the time you read these words (http://www.tribal.com). Initial impressions: geek city, lots and lots of feathers and cosmic colors, man, a major section of the site being devoted to the self-admittedly crazy ramblings of an escapee from the Pikes Peak Mental Facility who is obviously some loon one of the programmers thinks is cool, and what seems way too much stuff about ‘adult’ web sites and marijuana. Is this company for people who wear shoes? we asked the PR flack, who admitted the company was doing its publicity ass-backwards – not putting a corporate ‘story’ together before going live, and letting the Colorado cyperpunks have their own groovy web pages for maybe a little longer than they should. The company’s managers hasten to add that yes, this is for people with shoes, and hopefully ones with money, too. We’re trying to be grown ups here, despite all the Indian feathers, says Esposito, speaking from the company’s administrative HQ in Scotts Valley, California. But not corporate – professional, yes, but Tribal Voice is attacking the consumer and business markets simultaneously, given that it thinks PowWow, its product, is a horizontal offering. Remember that idea of tribes? PowWow is a Windows 95 and NT based communications program for the internet that allows multiple users at any one time to chat, via typing or by voice, send files, view personal home pages and JPEG pictures, and cruise the web together. This leads on to the idea of ‘communities’ (tribes) which allow up to 1,000 people to chat together, it is claimed. The company boasts of over 40,000 such ‘tribes’ out there now using its shareware, with a total of two million users in all. Hence the initial impression about adult sites and marijuana fans – this is a reflection not of the company but of its constituents, it being a fact of life that a lot of the use of the internet is to do with using what Norman Mailer calls the magical parts of our bodies. In fact tribes range in approach from gay Hispanic folks to Icelandic villagers to religious groups to academic networks, says Tribal Voice. The reason for the company getting in touch ass-backward is that it is highly confident that the latest version, 3.5, offers compelling features to a new potential community – the corporation. This is because it includes the world’s first virtual community construction kit which adds instant voice messaging capability to instant messaging, suggesting individuals or multinational companies can bypass long-distance and international calls when communicating within the domain of their organizations. For example, executives with internet access traveling to Singapore can now send voice messages back to their New York based colleagues for free, recording and sending ‘Insta-Voice’ messages of one minute in length (15 Kbytes). These messages are handled with automatic 50:1 compression, a feature it claims will still capture pitch and emotion and still keeping your voice natural sounding. Esposito thinks this sort of exchange will quickly grow to where there are hundreds of millions of such messages exchanged daily. While we are now all pretty familiar with internet telephony, this is different, since in fact the company is using it as a teaser to get individuals – perhaps in departments, schools, or inside a whole company – interested in the other facilities, such as the online communities options, multiple chat rooms, real-time (as opposed to ‘instant’) voice and text messaging, bulletin boards, games, and so forth. But what is the game plan here? What started out as internet shareware, with all the cultural baggage that implies for the ultralibertarian philosophy of some Netizens, is now being extended by guys who wear shoes (probably, Goddamit, shiny ones). Bet there’s some sinister plot to make money here somehow, right? Yes – but that was always the plan: McAfee, remember, made his loot first time around by distributing a lot of free antivirus software, then building on that with services and offers and admin tools that he charged for. The implication is that Tribal Voice is now ready to step up a rung, turning a neat, fun app into something useful. A lot of users start using this at home and end up thinking, ‘I could use this at work,’ says Esposito. But don’t translate that as meaning the new management is abandoning its free and funky user base – it just wants to extend it. Esposito’s example is from his publishing past: it would make life a lot more simple for dictionary companies if they could do higher-priced ‘corporate’ versions with big black serious covers, but they don’t because users resist that – a dictionary is a horizontal/universal product, even though something like 25% of all sales of dictionaries are direct to corporates, he states. Tribal Voice’s mission statement is that it is about building and selling software for the creation, hosting and management of internet-based online communities. We will make our money from the moderators and organizers of these virtual communities, he says. Which could be your employer, while you get a free client version, perhaps. Interesting stuff, though the company faces not a few challenges – it must not alienate its current users as it goes more mainstream, it must transition to making money off free internet software (something Netscape Communications Corp hasn’t managed in a painfree way yet), it must become a real consumer product company with all the quality and support issues that implies, it must sell its use to network managers who already suspect most of their bandwidth is being used to hit XXX sites, and who will resist what can come across, despite all Tribal Voice’s words about corporate on-line training sessions and the like, as kind of CB radio over the web: it must also lose that escapee from the laughing academy, Martin, the False Prophet as he likes to dub himself, who while doubtless eminently worthy of his own web site – nay, band of disciples – is probably a tad Cheech and Chong for the average IS manager. It’ll be interesting to see how Tribal Voice really does try to become the ‘voice of the people,’ not just ‘voice of the male science student with way too much time and free internet access on his hands.’

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