What's Next

It's tough being an Internet pioneer in Ridgeland, Miss., a place where the computers come from Wal-Mart, high tech means WorldCom and only WorldCom, and the local claim to fame is being at ground zero for the West Nile virus. But Bill Scott, programmer and former rock drummer, is an Internet pioneer of the best sort. He has proven, world-beating technology; a wide-open $283-billion market to serve; and ecstatic customers -- everything but success. If this guy lived in Silicon Valley, he might be a zillionaire today. But he lives in Ridgeland, and his company, ScotSystems Inc., is struggling. Scott needs a partner.

ScotSystems runs StoreReport.com, an application service provider (ASP) for gas-station and convenience-store businesses. Bill Scott wants to put your Slurpee machine on the Internet.

To get a sense of what StoreReport does for its customers, think of it in terms of a similar but slightly larger initiative announced in November by Sam Palmisano, CEO of IBM. IBM's plan, which Palmisano referred to as "computing on demand," involves spending $10 billion to build the capability to provide any computing services that a business might need, all to be run on computers owned by IBM and accessed over the Internet from PCs. IBM makes that sound like a new idea, but it's what Bill Scott has been doing for the past three years for the convenience-store industry with StoreReport.com and before that as a purveyor of convenience-store software. ASPs were a big deal a couple of years ago during the Internet boom, when they were going to pay our bills, do our taxes, and monitor our exercise programs. Many of those ASPs are still quietly in business, but for no really good reason they've fallen out of favor. I think ASPs are still a good idea.

Convenience stores are not exactly on the bleeding edge of information technology, and having lots of locations can really be a problem for keeping track of the figures. Imagine someone who owns a number of stores and is rarely at any given store more than once in a while. Under the current system it takes days for such an owner to find out what's going on at a particular store. If the operation is bigger than that, managers collect daily transactions and then send them to the head office using modems. There the numbers are viewed and sent to the main computer for processing. If something is found to be wrong, it may be days before someone can communicate back to the store to correct the mess.

Presumably, a Web-enabled mobile phone would allow a store owner to look at the books while lying on a beach in Hawaii.