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Internet Is One Big Joke for High-Tech Firm

Added: (Wed Nov 24 1999)

Pressbox (Press Release) - By Jeffrey Heller

HERZLIYA, Israel (Reuters) - Don't laugh. An Internet start-up company believes it can joke its way to success.

NetCustomize Corp, powered by an Israeli research and development team and based in New York, has launched a humor Web site that tailors itself to a user's tastes through an interactive 'dialogue' with the Internet surfer.

The company, in business only eight months, has its sights on e-commerce, in which its "personalization" technology would be used to offer products an on-line shopper would be more apt to buy.

But meanwhile, if the firm hits the funny bone in what research shows is a massive body of Internet entertainment seekers, friends who have been jamming your e-mail basket with jokes will be sending them to the NetCustomize Web site instead.

"We enable users to gain control over the entertainment content they are going to receive," said Shay David, 27, an R&D team leader at the company's Israeli headquarters near Tel Aviv.

"This is the 'gee whiz' element of our product."

It works like this: a user logs on to www.elol.com -- the initials stand for Electronic Laugh Out Loud -- and downloads a small program that puts an icon on the computer desktop.

A click on the icon brings up a joke which the user is asked to rate by clicking on choices that range from "this joke is not funny" to "this joke is hilarious." A new joke appears only after the previous one is ranked.

After fewer than 25 ratings, the system
learns'' the user's personal humor preferences and sends jokes -- the surfer tells the Web site how many and when to transmit them -- that remain hidden until the flashing desktop icon is clicked again.

In an on-line test of the Web site ahead of a Reuters interview of NetCustomize's founders, particularly lewd jokes that received negative ratings were filtered out by the system quickly.

Web Site Can Take A Joke

"All the content is user-generated. There's a 'submit' button. If you are a registered user and submit a joke, you are going to start earning points and points are going to help you win prizes," David said.

Ariel Yaniv, 30, a co-founder of the company and its vice president of engineering, said users had been sending NetCustomize between 50 and 100 jokes a day.

"I think...it's adults, at work. I know that in big companies, a lot of people sit and look for things to do," Yaniv said. "If you are currently forwarding jokes to other people...start forwarding them to ELOL and you'll know that everyone else is going to get it."

A NetCustomize employee filters out what Yaniv called 'the bad stuff.' Then, added chief technical officer Yuval Inbar, 29, "we send the joke to just 50 people and if it doesn't exceed a certain rating, it doesn't go to all the others."

Registration is free and the company promises never to disclose to a third party any information you provide.

But by logging on to its joke site, a user is helping NetCustomize to build its own community of potential consumers.

"There are four different revenue streams where we can make money," David said, listing advertising, e-commerce, partnering with "major players in the entertainment market" and "consulting and employing this technology with other peers."

Other e-commerce sites have technology in place to try to identify consumer preferences. NetCustomize said its product takes personalization a step beyond because it doesn't rely solely on past purchasing habits or questionnaires.

For example, David said, he once searched Amazon.com for books about backaches. "Today, whenever I come in, again and again, I always get (recommendations) about books about backaches."

Taming The Net

The idea for NetCustomize began when co-founder Shuki Nir, 30, now based in New York and the company's chief executive officer, felt the need to tame the Internet.

"When you use the Internet every day, you feel that you are bombarded by too many types of content that you don't like, and actually you can't be effective in your work because you receive tons of jokes every day, most of them not funny," he said by telephone from New York.

"So we came up with the idea to deliver jokes to your taste," Nir added.

Like many other start-ups with Israeli roots, the company is grounded in the concept of tapping into Israel's pool of technological talent, some with training in army high-tech units, and American marketing know-how.

"We put the management and marketing and the business development in the States," Nir said. "And we take the smart people in Israel, who come out of...all these (army) units in order to develop the technology."

The company's next application, which it says it will release "in the near future," will focus on music.

"It's going to enable you, just like with the jokes, to have a pool of multimedia content: sounds, streaming media, MP3s, short video clips and information regarding your song," David said.

"We have negotiations going on (to partner up) with major content providers (who) are going to provide the songs," he said.

Users would rank their musical preferences on NetCustomize's site and then be offered a personalized choice of songs to download from the music company's own server.

Wireless Future

NetCustomize is also looking at the wireless market and is about to launch a joke transmission service for cellular GSM telephones in Israel and California, with an eye to expanding the service to handheld Palm V computers equipped with modems.

GSM telephone users will be able to dial a number, receive a written joke on the phone's display and rank it. Yaniv said 70 percent of the short messaging that already goes over cellular phones are jokes sent between friends.

WAP, or Wireless Application Protocol, will eventually bring not only text jokes but also multimedia content, including the Internet, to cellular phones.

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