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DILLER MAKES A CASE FOR HIS NEXT BIG IDEA SMART AGENTS ARE THE FUTURE, QVC CHIEF SAYS

By Published on .

Barry Diller watchers may be wise to get to know smart agents.

The charismatic QVC chairman, whose big ideas tend to set off tremors from Wall Street to Hollywood, believes smart agents are the latest panacea of the new-media world.

Mr. Diller last week confirmed he is likely to leave QVC-which is developing its own smart agents-before yearend if the sale of the home shopping network to Comcast Corp. and Tele-Communications Inc. goes through. But whether he winds up running CBS or doing something else, his enthusiasm for smart agents is sure to follow.

And if recent history repeats itself, Mr. Diller may be drawing a very big spotlight to the smart agenting concept. In the past two years, he has created similar buzzes around electronic retailing, broadcast networks and Apple PowerBooks, in some cases with merely a mention.

"I'm going to stop doing that," Mr. Diller vowed not-so-convincingly in an interview with Advertising Age, before admitting, "I may be doing the same thing inadvertently" with smart agents.

In a well-received speech at the American Magazine Conference in Laguna Niguel, Calif., last week and again in a private interview, Mr. Diller showed he is clearly intrigued with the concept of consumers empowering their computers to act as their agents in the marketplace.

"I do think smart agents are the taming mechanism that we need to move on," Mr. Diller told Advertising Age, adding that he stumbled on the technology much as he stumbled upon QVC two years ago. "I very much believe in applications of smart agenting."

Smart agents are software applications that a consumer can program to gather information or perform transactions and other tasks based on personal preferences. The area is just beginning to emerge, but there is widespread interest in using agents in product marketing and electronic publishing.

QVC's smart agents will search out products for consumers to buy based on their tastes.

General Magic, a high-profile Silicon Valley start-up, has developed agent software that is used in new personal communicators from Sony Corp. and Motorola. Likewise, Apple Computer has developed software that can comb online services and databases for information specified by a user, creating a customized newspaper on a PC.

Sophisticated agent programs are a long way from being a technology for the masses. Many current proposals for such wizardry would require a massive investment by technology companies and marketers to set up the system.

Mr. Diller, however, thinks smart agents can be deployed more simply, using existing technologies in new ways.

"I do not believe there has to be an infrastructure" built from the ground up, he said. Not surprisingly, he declined to discuss what he has in mind.

Where Mr. Diller will be when his ideas come to fruition is unknown. Of the planned sale of QVC, he said, "If in fact the merger takes place, it's unlikely I'm going to stay in a company that's wholly owned by Comcast and TCI."

He declined to discuss reports that he has reopened talks with CBS, which failed in its attempt to merge with QVC earlier this year when Comcast stepped in with a rival bid.

"I don't even blink on this because it leads to misunderstanding," he said.

Mr. Diller reiterated his desire to be an owner wherever he goes, and said he "will always go toward something that has challenge all over it ... [as well as] properties of change or invention."

If he takes over management of CBS, Mr. Diller is sure to bring change.

"All the networks have to radically transform themselves to be relevant," he said.

At the American Magazine Conference, Mr. Diller chastised publishers for rushing into interactive media without first trying to understand it.

"The acceleration of daily life, this mad rush to get ahead of the future, is eroding our ability at the most critical time to gather together the building blocks to do the real and necessary work of new-product creation," he said.

Publishers can't just re-package material from their print products for online and CD-ROM platforms, he said, warning, "If you try to cram a magazine through a phone jack and call it interactive, you'll get nowhere."

Asked later if advertising will be a part of the new-media future, Mr. Diller said, "Advertising in one form or the other is of course going to be a revenue stream ... Advertising is in a great, long arc of real fundamental change."

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