When the Web evolved from geeky hangout to indispensable fount of information in the late 1990s, numerous companies plied the dot-com boom, offering free and paid services to customers. Today, few of those companies are still around because most of them were pointless. (Anyone remember the pet-food delivery service that lost money on every shipment? Apparently, the company's business plan relied on volume.) Back in 1998 and 1999, the notion of paying for Web content seemed ludicrous. But the Web of 2004 is awash in useful services—some free, some paid. Here's a list of the paid services I can't live without, in order from the practical to the trivial.
One Web service that I've been involved with for a long time is food delivery. While living in Phoenix 10 years ago, my wife and I started using a fax-based food-ordering service from the Bashas supermarket chain, which eventually offered a more convenient Web-based version. When we moved back to the Boston area in 1999, we were surprised to discover four competing food-delivery services, and we settled on the Peapod service, which, in the Boston area, delivers groceries from Stop & Shop. We must have chosen wisely, because its three competitors have since gone out of business, and Peapod is now the only major food-delivery service in our area.
With Peapod, we can access an online grocery store on the Web, maintain and save orders, make custom lists for parties and other infrequent events, and even pull up a master list of everything we've ever ordered, which is handy because we tend to order many of the same items in each order. Peapod recently raised its prices: The service costs $4.95 for an order costing $100 or more, $9.95 if you spend $75 or more, or $9.95 for orders that cost less than $75. We also give the delivery person a tip, which is apparently optional, but we believe a lot of work is involved in the service. Because of Peapod, we rarely need to venture into supermarkets, although we do buy certain kinds of higher-quality meat, seafood, and fruit at a local market.
Like many people, we rely on online banking, which makes paying bills much easier and less time-consuming. Simply removing the act of writing checks by hand, putting a stamp on each envelope, and putting them in the mail probably saves us a few hours each week. We bank at a small local bank, which has its advantages and disadvantages, but our cost for online banking is $3 per month, which is automatically deducted from our checking account. It's money well spent.
I've subscribed to Consumer Reports on and off for almost 20 years, and I've always enjoyed the publication's car reviews and reliability reports. For the past year, however, I've subscribed to ConsumerReports.org, the magazine's online subscription service, which costs $26 per year or $4.95 per month. Subscribers to the print magazine get a reduced annual cost of $19 per year. ConsumerReports.org gives me access to 4 years of product reviews from a source I've always trusted, and it has proved to be an amazing resource, especially during a recent car purchase.
The Wall Street Journal Online
Billed as the Web's most successful subscription-based site, the Wall Street Journal is the online version of my favorite business newspaper—and an incredible news resource. For news hounds like me, The Wall Street Journal Online provides early access to news (print columns appear online at 7:00 P.M. the night before), reports that aren't available in print, and great personalization features that let you tailor the site to meet your needs. A feature called Personal Journal helps you manage your personal finances, or the "business of life," as the The Wall Street Journal calls it. This feature includes exclusive columns and stories, of course, but also financial tools and calculators. The Wall Street Journal Online costs $79 per year, or you can pay $6.95 per month.
In 2002, a year after I bought my first Macintosh computer, Apple Computer introduced the .Mac service, which provides subscribers with a mac.com email address, online disk space, and other special features. I've been a subscriber since the service debuted and automatically resubscribed last year when my renewal came up because I was impressed with the features Apple added over time. Today, for $99 per year, .Mac users get the aforementioned services, plus online backup, instant message (IM) chatting through iChat AV, a photo slide show and screen-saver tool, online calendar publishing and sharing through iCal, Web site hosting, and a steady stream of member-only benefits. Recent additions include free games, discounts on Apple products purchased online, free Keynote themes, a Getting Started manual, free sound effects and music tracks for use in iMovie creations, and more. It's a bit expensive—and basically Mac-only, of course—but it's a high-quality offering.
On the PC side, I keep an MSN Dial-up account handy whenever I need to get online in a broadband-deprived hotel. But if you already have access, you can try the new MSN Premium service, which you can use with any Internet access service. For $9.99 per month, MSN Premium gives you McAfee antivirus software, access to valuable online resources such as MSN Money Plus (home finances) and MSN Encarta (research), cool multimedia photo-sharing tools, and some other handy features. But all MSN accounts, including my dial-up account ($21.95 monthly), give you some amazing features, including support for as many as 11 MSN/Hotmail accounts, an Outlook Connector add-on for accessing MSN features from Microsoft Outlook, parental controls, email virus protection and junk-email protection, pop-up ad blocking, PDA synchronization, and much more. I use MSN for a variety of reasons, but lately its calendar functionality has replaced that of Outlook for me because it's easier to use between many computers, and I can access it from the Web even if I'm on a public computer. MSN offers great services for decent prices, and I recommend it highly. Make sure you're using the latest version, though: MSN 9 is a substantial improvement over previous versions.
Salon magazine was one of the dot-com boom Web services I described earlier, but it's still around today, largely because of its excellent columnists and high-quality articles. Available only through a $35-yearly Web subscription, Salon focuses largely on news, politics, technology, and cultural topics such as sex and life. Salon has won virtually every legitimate Web award available—no surprise to subscribers. Highly recommended.
I'm a geek from way back, so I remember some of the seminal moments of the computer industry from reports in Byte magazine, which existed in print form from 1975 to 1998. In the 1980s and early 1990s, Byte was valuable because it covered the many computer systems that were then available, but the magazine lost its luster when the Windows/PC duopoly made the magazine's multisystem approach seem anachronistic. Today's online version of the magazine includes a weekly column from my favorite tech writer, Jerry Pournelle, an award-winning science fiction author; this column is the primary reason I subscribe. I've been fortunate enough to get to know Pournelle a bit over the past several years (we frequently attend the same industry events), and he also makes a credible case as the originator of the blog—he's been keeping an electronic daybook for years. BYTE.com costs $19.95 per year.
Star Wars Hyperspace
Like most people my age, I grew up on Star Wars, and with the release of the prequel trilogy of films, I've become somewhat of a closet fan-boy, eager for any news about each movie. Starting with Episode III's preproduction last summer, Lucasfilm is offering a subscription called Hyperspace, which provides exclusive content such as making-of featurettes, photos, behind-the-scenes reports, live Web cams, on-set daily journals, and so on. Hyperspace costs $19.95 per year and is updated almost daily.
Surely, I haven't heard of many wonderful paid services out there. Which Web services do you subscribe to, and what makes them indispensable to you?