There you are, browsing through an online bookstore -- say, Amazon.com. You spot a volume that looks interesting. You're tempted to click the shopping-cart icon to order the book, but first you wait for a clever piece of software to do its thing.
Does it ever. A little window pops up on your screen. In the background the software has been checking prices, availability and delivery time at other online booksellers, and it's found a better deal for the book somewhere else. Are you sure you want to buy from Amazon?
Welcome to RUSure.com, one of the most interesting examples of a genre I call subversive software -- products that undermine the status quo and empower the individual. This isn't an entirely positive development. But it's inevitable, and, on balance, better than a rigid, top-down system.
Subversive software takes many forms, and it isn't new. The rise of the personal computer was an inherently radical shift, giving individuals and small businesses the ability to do things once reserved for rich people and big organizations.
The rise of networks, especially the Internet, fueled the revolution. The Net in general, and World Wide Web in particular, have become the environment in which we increasingly handle our information, communication and commerce, and in which regular people find they have more power than ever.
But the Web is a public place. And as companies (and individuals) sometimes realize to their dismay, people will use what you post publicly in ways you never anticipated.
Like all makers of subversive software, RUSure's Israeli developers stand on the shoulders of earlier revolutionaries in their emerging category -- in this case, software robots that run around the Web to find the best deals.
Similarly, you can trace the lineage of another deeply subversive product, Third Voice, which gives people a way to remark on other people's Web pages in a way that gives the impression (but not the reality) of posting comments on the original pages. Third Voice isn't the first invention of its type, but it's the most refined.
RUSure and Third Voice also reflect a trend that seems to be gaining strength. Each is a stand-alone software application that runs on a personal computer. Each relies on the Internet for its content and uses Net communications standards, but neither is a Web browser or a so-called "plug-in" that runs inside the browser. Call them plug-on applications. This turns out to be important, as we'll see.
RUSure (www.rusure.com) is actually an application and a Web site. The site looks at first glance like a portal, a bunch of product categories and subcategories, grouped in a relatively logical way.
Software running from the Web site hustles around the Net, gathering information on products and prices from hundreds of retailers whose wares include books, auctions, computers and consumer electronics.
From your browser you can ask RUSure about items you want to buy and receive a listing of prices and other information just as you can do with several other so-called "meta-search" sites, such as MySimon (www.mysimon.com).
A useful wrinkle on the RUSure site is its aggregation of search requests, so you can find out what items are most in demand.
But the plug-on software is the interesting part. The software effectively looks over your shoulder as you shop and helps you make sure you're getting the combination of price and delivery time you prefer. For a retailer like Amazon, which doesn't have the lowest prices, RUSure and products like it are bad news.
It could get more painful yet. RUSure intercepts shoppers before they get to the virtual checkout counter, zeroing in on individual items.
Soon enough, clever programmers will write applications that wait for you, the shopper, to get to the checkout screen, then tally up your entire order, query other online retailers and come back to you with a better offer for your entire purchase.
Some companies are fighting back. eBay, the dominant online auction site, is not happy, to put it mildly, with a variety of Web sites that regularly scan eBay and other auction sites and tell consumers what's available and where.
Given that eBay puts this information on a public site, it seems a bizarre stretch of logic to tell certain members of the public not to look. It's also a questionable business strategy to turn away potential customers -- the consumers who like to use the third-party sites -- but that's between eBay and its shareholders.
eBay can always write software that looks for and blocks the robot software run by AuctionWatch (www.auctionwatch.com) and its brethren. But that leaves eBay with another problem, in the form of products like RUSure and Apple Computer's Sherlock 2 Macintosh software (the latter is part of the latest update, Version 9, of the Mac operating system).
Now it's not some central Web-based computer sending queries all the time to the auction site (or retail site, for that matter) but software running on personal computers -- software that will appear to the retailer or auctioneer to be an individual's browser-based query, which no one will want to block.
I don't see how online retailers are going to be able to prevent consumers from quickly and easily finding the best deals.
Third Voice (www.thirdvoice. com) raises equally difficult issues, though of a different sort.
This product isn't about price or delivery time. It's about expressing opinions. I don't happen to like it very much, and I doubt it'll succeed without major changes, but it's pretty subversive in its own way.
Third Voice won't work at all unless you download the software, for a very good reason. The idea is to let people post comments about Web pages, but it would be a flagrant copyright violation if Third Voice copied other people's pages to its own site before allowing you or me to post our opinions.
Instead, the software creates an illusion of third-party comments. It displays the original Web page, intact, but puts the comments in a layer on top. Some critics have likened this to graffiti, but that's not accurate, because the original doesn't change.
More thoughtful critics worry that Microsoft might decide that this kind of software is a natural part of the operating system, thereby inviting the entire world to mess up Internet content that content providers have spent years creating.
My dim view of Third Voice doesn't stem from fear of disagreement. I learn more from people who think I'm wrong than from people who think I'm right. Nor am I all that worried that my Web-posted writings will be turned into the equivalent of a graffiti-littered tenement wall.
Why? Because Third Voice lacks an essential feature -- moderation, in several senses of the word -- without which it will never transcend mere cunning.