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Cultcha and Calculators
Dec 20, 1999 :: Michael Sippey

Quick -- when was the last time you were actually excited about a new website? With all the noise about holiday e-commerce, not to mention the rabid spread of weblogs and infomediary schemes as of late, it's been a while since anything has made my pulse race like two sites I've come across recently. Both are aggressive plays in their respective marketspaces, both use technology appropriately to enhance the customer experience, and both remind me just why the web still has plenty of juice left in it.

Launched just the week before last, is the most exciting -- and ambitious -- content site I've seen in ages. Their goal nothing less than to create a massively hyperlinked guide to the worlds of music, art, design and literature. Their initial release, while not entirely comprehensive, is so beautifully done that I'll cut them some slack for not including Don DeLillo. Their library of artist biographies, movement descriptions, interviews, photos and external links is navigable two ways: a hierarchical menu system (your standard left-hand nav), and a non-hierarchical thinkmap-style visual display of related artists, movements, time periods and keywords. Of course, it's this nav that yields the more interesting connections: a biographical entry of wunderkind Damien Hirst yields links to Annette Messager, Paul McCarthy and Joseph Kosuth.

On the other end of the spectrum is, the latest entry in the hosted personal productivity applications space. But unlike or, who have launched with suites of miniature web applications to manage your calendar, your to-do list, your files and your contacts, HalfBrain has only one app -- a spreadsheet called "Brain Matter." Written entirely in DHTML, Brain Matter provides the 20% of the functionality of Excel that 80% of the market uses 100% of the time -- all in your browser. It's fast, it's clean, it's intuitive -- and it's smart. HalfBrain clearly knows that when you migrate an application to the network, it opens up new ways to use that application. First, they've enabled network-based storage of the spreadsheets you create (of course). Second, their site helps shift focus from the tool itself to the use of the tool, by publishing more than 200 interactive calculators that help users do simple tasks like track expenses, plan a party or calculate the value of their options. Finally, they've flipped the viral bit, making it incredibly easy to email a spreadsheet to a friend, or to post a calculator on your own website.

As for the obvious questions around business models, it's pretty simple. Artandculture seems to be a standard publishing combo of ads and commerce affiliate partnerships, counting on the fact that their audience might be a tad more educated than your average bit clicker. And while HalfBrain also offers a moderately compelling platform for advertising (users will stare at that spreadsheet longer than they'll stare at a wire story on, you can bet that they're counting on being acquired by a portal who's willing to battle Microsoft in the online application space.



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