THE BEAVER AND THE BUZZ; Bozlo makes his public debut on the Internet. But is anybody watching?; Episode 7

THE BALTIMORE SUN

It's B-Day. May 6, 1997. Bozlo's public debut. Marc Singer holds his breath. He is confident that Bozlo is entertaining. But will anyone outside the office of togglethis, his Internet start-up in Manhattan, care? If the launch is unsuccessful, will togglethis run out of money before producing and distributing another interactive character? What if Marc has ruined his credit rating and wasted two precious years of his youth for nothing?

The stakes are not only about business. They are personal. If Bozlo flops, Marc flops. The beaver's fortunes will determine whether this is the new era Marc dreamed about -- or the dead end a hundred venture capitalists have predicted. Should have stuck to the software, they'll say knowingly.

For now, Marc, like New York-nasty Bozlo, remains defiant. He believes in the beaver because he believes in himself.

The mechanics of the launch are simple enough. Anyone on the Internet can now go to the togglethis Web page and sign up for a free subscription to six Bozlo episodes. From there, users download the Interactive Character engine that has cost his programmer, Rajan Parthasarathy, so much sleep. A script for each new episode will arrive every Tuesday, by e-mail. Each episode ends with a brief interactive ad for Intel, which has sponsored the episodes.

Marc trades e-mail with his mother in downtown Baltimore. At least one person, he is now sure, has signed up for Bozlo.

Marti Singer is sitting in front of her computer at the offices of LaSalle Advisors on Pratt Street. She downloads the engine and opens the e-mail containing the first episode.

Behind her, her co-workers -- it seems like all 57 of them -- gather around to watch.

"What the hell are you doing here?" The beaver greets you from inside your desktop, glances up at your open system folder and scratches himself. His words appear in bubbles over his head.

"They told me I was going to be alone."

He taunts you. "Don't even think about clicking me. I'm allergic to cursors ... I'd really rather see your cursor dead."

You can ignore him, and he will walk away. But you can't resist. You click. He ducks. "You call that a click?" You click again. He falls over. "Your cursor is dead." You decide to pick him up ("Put me down," he squeals) and then you drop him. He gets up, bruised. "No dropping the beaver."

He whistles, and on screen appear two of your icons, barking like dogs. "Your icons feel my pain," he says as he grins impishly. Then: "Kill Boys! KILL CURSOR!" as the icons rush at your cursor. If you elude them, Bozlo will dismiss his "worthless mutts." But for you, the barking icons are too fast, biting your cursor and disabling it for the next 20 seconds.

"Team Beaver wins," he says, turning around and shaking his behind in your face. It's a victory dance.

You try to click him, but he is moving off-screen with his icons, the episode ending. "C'mon boys," he says, "let's go chew on the hard drive."

"Bzzzz!" yells Marc, jumping out of his office and almost tripping on Raj's plastic sword. "Bzzz!"

"You know what we've got?" he shouts.

"Buzz," comes the weary reply from Jason Scott, togglethis' chief financial officer, who is trying to make a phone call.

"You know what we've got?" Marc shouts again expecting a stronger reply.

"We have buzz, buzz, buzz," says Jason, peppier.

The relief and joy is real. Each day after the launch, Marc's partner Paul Maya arrives at 8 and checks the subscriber number on the server. It is 100 after three days. Then 1,000. 10,000. Within a month, so many people are downloading the engine that the Web page, and the togglethis' server that supports it, crash. Raj scrambles to make quick repairs. Every day, their spirits soaring, Marc and Paul post the new subscriber total on the board in the conference room. Paul sometimes finds himself checking the number five times a day. "It's hard evidence that we're not crazy," he says.

By summer's end, Bozlo has more than 100,000 devotees. The beaver is an Internet sensation.

The trade press reaction is, Marc says, repeating his favorite compliment, "insane."

"Does the World Need Interactive Beavers? Yes," shouts the Netly News. Multimedia Week calls Bozlo the most interactive thing to appear on the Internet. The L.A. Times Online hails Bozlo as a "Desktop Terrorist." Business Week calls the beaver an "insufferable but adorable electronic pet." Bozlo toys with Fox News' logo on screen during a joint appearance with Marc and Paul on the network's technology show.

"Bozlo Beaver, avatar of the new age for Silicon Alley," editorializes the Manhattan new media journal @NY. "The boys on the Coast are probably laughing out loud. A goofy little animated character that grabs your cursor and runs off your desktop? So what, they scoff. Well, they laugh at their own peril."

After six episodes, Marc sends subscribers an e-mail asking for their comments. The tens of thousands of replies are almost uniformly delirious.

"I nearly wet myself laughing," says one. "The whole office stands still on Tuesday morning," says another. Lee Ross, an American Internet developer, says his wife never understood what he did for a living until she saw an episode of Bozlo. "Bozlo is a NATIONAL TREASURE!" writes one Disney executive. "Bozlo ought to run for office!"

Marc and Paul, reading each e-mail, realize they were right. People think of Bozlo as a friend, alive. "Technology is supposed to be cold," says Marc. "You don't hear people say, 'Oh, my God, I love Microsoft Windows 95.' Bozlo changed the whole way people reacted."

Paul swells with pride when he discovers Bozlo on the syllabus of a Stanford University class, "Interactivity, Narrative and Artificial Intelligence." Jason, in the midst of raising $2 million in capital to keep togglethis afloat for another year, notices a surge in the number of people returning his calls. Raj, exultant by the press and praise from friendly programmers, wrecks his Eclipse in New Jersey one day in an orgy of speed. ("The curb was interactive," he says. "It just jumped out and hit me.")

Suddenly, it doesn't matter that Marc has so little experience closing deals. Bozlo can. Calls flood the once-quiet office.

Marc rebuffs inquiries from tobacco and sex-related companies, remaining adamant that any new interactive characters have wholesome images. Ad agencies from Canada to the Caribbean send their executives to play with Legos at 151 W. 25th St., and to ask pointed questions about togglethis technology. Before Bozlo, Internet advertising has consisted of static banners that appear on Web pages; these advertisers now wonder if the characters they use in TV and print campaigns might be "toggled" for the Internet. The most aggressive ad agency is the world's largest, the Japan-based Dentsu. After it signs a deal with togglethis, Paul flies off to Tokyo, the first time in his life he has ever traveled out of the country.

Big media companies follow the ad agencies, just as Marc and Paul had predicted during their Hoboken bull sessions two years before, when togglethis lacked an office, a staff and a business plan. Nancy Meis, marketing director for Universal New Media, the Internet arm of cartoon distributor Universal Press Syndicate, is on an airplane when she reads about Bozlo in a trade magazine. As soon as the plane lands, she calls Marc. But with the flood of calls, togglethis' phone system is down, and Marc doesn't call back for three days.

"This is incredible that you called us," Marc, feeling prophetic, says to Meis.

Why?

"Because working with Universal is in our business plan."

Within weeks, Marc and Paul are on a plane to Universal offices in Kansas City, where the coat-and-tie executives gawk at Marc, who is wearing a tattered flannel shirt with a button missing. By fall, Universal Media has agreed to use togglethis' software to create Internet episodes for its comic strip characters, which include Tank McNamara, Doonesbury, Garfield and other properties. But more than ad agencies or cartoon syndicates, Marc and Paul want Hollywood to embrace their idea.

If togglethis can get big entertainment companies to agree to "toggle" their most popular characters, public interest will grow, creating a market for the interactive characters that live in Marc's imagination. With 100,000 subscribers, interactive characters are a niche business run by a company that could not, in the long term, survive. With studio support, Bozlo could become the first of a family of characters, and a company like togglethis could sustain itself.

If one studio will agree, Marc believes, the rest of the entertainment industry will follow. Hollywood has been reluctant to embrace the Internet. Can Bozlo change its mind?

In Marti Singer's office, as the first Bozlo episode begins to play on her screen, she is, truth be told, shocked by Bozlo's language. "I thought Bozlo was obnoxious. I thought he should be cuter. I thought Marc should have made his teeth smaller."

But then she notices that her colleagues are staring at the screen, entranced by the beaver. An executive marvels at Bozlo's life-like reactions, "How does it do that?"

Immediately, Marti knows the answer: Like any newborn, it is alive.

Alive in her computer.

"That," she thinks, as co-workers applaud, "is my first grandchild."

Tomorrow: Mr. Singer and Mr. Beaver go to Hollywood.

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