February 23, 1996
Free National On-Line Phone Book
Is Ante for Ambitious Net Repository
By ROB FIXMERn the scramble to bring secure e-mail and retail transactions to the World Wide Web, a new division of Banyan Systems, Inc., the Westboro, Mass.-based LAN company, made an ambitious play this week. It introduced a free, national, on-line telephone directory designed to evolve into a vast clearinghouse of e-mail addresses, personal information and -- most important -- encrypted ID's.
The foundation product of the new service, known as Switchboard, is a free "white pages" data base of the telephone listings and addresses of 93 million people and 11 million businesses nationwide, coupled with a high-speed search engine. Although similar data bases are available on CD-ROM's, Switchboard distinguishes itself in two significant ways: the seemingly impossible speed of its search results and the fact that it is merely a foundation that Banyan has designed to evolve into something much more ambitious.
In short, the phone directory is free because Banyan is banking on its growing into a vast and profitable directory of e-mail addresses and business affiliations -- with a unique privacy scheme known as KnockKnock -- and a leading repository of "digital certificates," an encryption technology that promises privacy in communications. Many on-line retailers consider digital certificates the best hope for enabling secure credit-card transactions on the Web.
Switchboard, which is built on Banyan's StreetTalk scalable directory architecture and runs on Windows NT Pentium servers, is lightning fast, among the most robust data bases to emerge on the Web. While the search engine allows users to enter first and last names, cities and states, a nationwide search of even the most common surnames produces virtually instantaneous results.
For example, when Beverley Hsiao, a producer at The New York Times Electronic Media Company, entered only her last name on Thursday afternoon, Switchboard responded instantly with page after page of Hsiao listings throughout the United States, including her own address and phone number in New York City.
While hers is a relatively common Chinese surname, Hsiao said: "I didn't know the name was that common. I browsed through about 130 listings -- and those were only the ones with first names that started with the letters A through C."
To discourage trivial use of the service, the company disabled total counts when common names are searched.
Switchboard is produced by Coordinate.com, Banyan's new Internet division with headquarters in Burlington, Mass. The company says that it provides only publicly available information (no unlisted numbers) provided by Database America Companies, Inc. of Montvale, N.J., which specializes in gathering and selling business and consumer information.
One of the more interesting features of Switchboard is the fact that registered users (registration is also free) are allowed to modify or even remove their own listings, adding a measure of control over their electronic identities. Once registered, you can, for example, add information like your e-mail address or business affiliations to your listing.
The KnockKnock scheme, which the company compares to Caller ID on telephones, is an optional privacy screen that lets people contact you via e-mail even if you have chosen not to make your e-mail address public. You can choose to use Switchboard as an intermediary; the service will forward e-mail to you, and the sender will see your address only if you respond.
"Switchboard helps people find people, and to be found by those they want to hear from," John M. Paul, Coordinate.com's senior vice president said in a company statement.
The company's venture into encrypted transactions arises from a partnership announced last Friday with VeriSign Inc., which makes "public key certificates," encrypted digital codes that two parties must exchange in order to conduct secure communications, whether it be a business letter or a credit card number.
While an encryption standard known as S/MIME, for Secure Multipurpose Internet Mail Extension, is already widely accepted, what is lacking is critical mass in the form of a central repository for key certificates. Such a repository is essential because in order for secure communications to take place, users must exchange digital certificates without compromising their encryption. Banyan and VeriSign are betting that the free phone directory and impressive search capabilities will attract enough registered users to catapult Switchboard into the Internet's leading repository.
Coordinate.com's executives were on a transcontinental flight on Thursday evening and unavailable for comment. Amy Bermar, a publicist for the site, said that the company hoped to realize income from advertising and from revenue sharing in its role as a repository of digital certificates.
Bermar said that in the first 48 hours after the site went up on Tuesday, Switchboard handled more than 400,000 search requests from Web users.
"That tells me it's attracting sufficient traffic to merit advertising," Bermar said.
Switchboard's Home Page
Copyright 1996 The New York Times Company