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Gateway fumbles; LivePlanet mumbles

Gateway attempts to market its PCs through classified ads, and Yahoo invites LivePlanet's Ben Affleck online in what could be the first step of a relationship.

Nobody knows you quite as well as the people you employ. Every time my shrink, the estimable Dr. Helmut Fraeme-Relais, adjusts the dosage of my experimental antidepressant Innuenda, my secretary Trixie Pixel knows how much within a 5-milligram margin of error.

She is equally adept at divining how long it's been since I've enjoyed the attentions of the opposite sex, and it was with this knowledge that she defended her decision last week to place a personals ad on my behalf.

"Sk'ny WM sks. cute SF for noirish nites and criminal b'hav'r. Me: handsome in raincoats. You: Must lk. kids, prefer hearsay, rumors over verification, commitment."

I protested; Trixie was not contrite. The morale of the Rumor Mill staff depended on my getting out more, she insisted--and besides, if the classified ads were good enough for Gateway, they were good enough for me.

In fact, the classifieds turned out not to be good enough for Gateway, but that didn't keep them from running with it.

The computer company has been trying all kinds of tricks in an attempt to turn around its flagging business, including recalling founder Ted Waitt as CEO, scotching its software and services strategy, and just this week offering to beat any competitor's price.

The company went so far as to abandon "stupid" policies. But perhaps no solution has raised eyebrows as high as Gateway's attempt to market its computers through the classified section of local newspapers.

Readers of the San Jose Mercury News this week saw--right alongside ads for used barbecues and banged up saxophones--Gateway computers for the low, low price of $799, not including shipping, handling and tax.

Analysts said they'd never seen anything like it.

"That's quite unique, actually," remarked Toni Duboise analyst with ARS. "It's kind of reaching. It shows that Gateway is trying all avenues, which is to their credit, but I'm not sure about their timing. The second quarter is typically the worst quarter of the year for PC manufacturers."

To be sure, computer makers are trying all kinds of new marketing avenues. Why not the classifieds?

"That's weird," said Roger Kay, analyst with IDC. "All the vendors are trying different channel strategies to see what works. But when you see a classified ad for a computer, you usually expect it to be sold by an individual. Recently there have been a lot of eBay sales of computers, with varying degrees of professionalism, and that could lead to an experiment like this. I couldn't swear that on eBay there aren't representatives of companies selling their own computers."

Gateway bought the classifieds in the Merc and several other newspapers as part of a test, according to internal Gateway Skinformants. The experiment did not produce many leads and will not continue, they said.

The four-line ad would have set the PC maker back $4.50 a day over the course of a standard 10-day run, according to a sales rep. That represents quite a savings over more traditional advertising venues. A full-page black-and-white ad in The Wall Street Journal national print edition, for example, costs as much as $162,557.28 a day, says the paper's 2001 rate card.

No one ever called the Journal a cheap date.

Speaking of cheap dates, Yahoo (which still offers some stuff for free) served up matinee idol Ben Affleck to adoring fans in an online chat last week, where the star of summer blockbuster "Pearl Harbor" fended off a self-professed futuremrsaffleck, denied rumors of a recent drinking bout with Heath Ledger, and let slip his inner geek.

Asked whether he owns Sony's hot new PlayStation 2 game console, Affleck admitted that he's got one--but quickly confessed he's also "pretty fired up" about the upcoming November release of both Microsoft's Xbox and Nintendo's GameCube.

"I don't believe in platform exclusivity," he typed in the May 24 exchange. "I go for every console that comes out."

Affleck's geek credibility is in the limelight these days thanks to his partnership with co-Oscar winner Matt Damon on an Internet entertainment venture dubbed LivePlanet, backed by tech firepower and investments from current and former Oracle execs. The company is set to launch a co-production this fall with ABC called "The Runner" that hopes to take CBS's wildly successful "Survivor" series concept a step further with an interactive convergence of television and the Net.

Viewers will be asked to help hunt down contestants who stand to earn $1 million in prize money if they can evade capture.

Is there more to the Yahoo-LivePlanet relationship than promotional opportunities? Although a rumor this week suggested the two companies have held talks over a possible collaboration, Skinformants close to both companies said they were unaware of any pending deal--although one source did add to Affleck's tech CV, noting he likes to build computers from scratch.

Just as "Pearl Harbor" hit theaters last week, eBay customers say they were hit with their own sneak attack over a new form required for sellers to list their items that snarled auctions on the site.

"They did it right before the holiday weekend," sniped auction gadfly Rosalida Baldwin, editor of the The Auction Guild's Tagnotes newsletter. "They do this a lot, where they launch things that are not truly tested. And the ones who suffer are the sellers."

In a mea culpa posted to the site Tuesday, the company apologized for the glitch, which led to formatting problems for sellers using third-party software to post items on the site.

"Over the past few days, many of you have experienced issues when attempting to list or relist with a Picture Services image," the note read. "We would like to sincerely apologize for the difficulties this has caused you. We recognize that this has had an impact on your trading, and we are doing everything we can to identify and solve these issues."

eBay spokesman Kevin Pursglove said the new seller form went through all the standard tests the company puts new features through before it launches them. Normally that testing process irons out most of the wrinkles, but not this time, he said.

"We went through the usual processes here, which is all the more reason why (the problem) is somewhat baffling," Pursglove said.

The latest eBay "upgrade" stymied not only the third-party services, but eBay's own listing services. Sellers who use the various iterations of Seller's Assistant and AuctionAssistant, produced by eBay-owned Blackthorne Software, found that they too were having difficulties listing items.

The trouble touched a nerve with AuctionAssistant users in particular. Those sellers bought AuctionAssistant--spending up to $200 in some cases--with the understanding that Blackthorne would upgrade the program in the future for free.

Instead, in February, Blackthorne introduced Sellers Assistant, a subscription-based listing service that replaced AuctionAssistant. Blackthorne offered to provide a year-long subscription to the upgrade for free, but warned AuctionAssistant users that it would eventually discontinue support for their program and they would be forced to pay subscription fees to get a working version.

Many sellers saw the update of the "sell your items" form as targeting AuctionAssistant users in particular. Updates to the form may cause problems for AuctionAssistant, but the company isn't trying to force people to upgrade, Pursglove said.

"That's just silly," he said. The only thing that keeps me from looking silly is your rumors.