Virgin Group Chairman Richard Branson set a world record this week by driving an amphibious sports car across the English Channel in less than two hours. How does he think of these things and come up with a constant string of new product lines for his businesses? (Our own Dayana Yochim was pretty impressed with Virgin Mobile's new cell phones.) What's next for you, Branson? Foolish minds want to know.

In today's Motley Fool Take:

Yahoo! Answers Google

By Alyce Lomax (TMF Lomax)

Yahoo! (Nasdaq: YHOO) delivered its answer to Google's Gmail today, phasing in the plan many people have been waiting for -- it now offers 100 megabytes of free storage to users, with a premium fee for two gigabytes of storage. In addition, Gmail must have given Yahoo! a real kick in the pants, too, because its new interface is much more smooth and modern now. Ultimately, though, it's just a "me-too" move that doesn't quite deliver.

As far as I can recall, this is the first upgrade of the somewhat clunky interface that has been Yahoo! Mail's standard since long before the Internet bubble burst. Given the changing face of the Web, at times it felt a bit like the Internet equivalent of chiseling on a tablet. Before Gmail, there was probably little reason to make the free service snazzy -- hey, you get what you pay for, right?

So, this morning's news gave me an excuse to see what's up in my Yahoo! Mail account. Sure enough, gone was the blaring red "over limit" bar with a pitch to buy more storage, which was certainly nice. Yahoo!'s new interface gives prime real estate to a search tab now, and the whole shebang's got a much more fluid look and feel, but no new earth-shattering functionality, in my opinion.

However, Yahoo! Mail does have a not-so-secret weapon. That's the ability to check home email remotely, while traveling or on lunch break or on a friend's computer. I don't know too many people whose sole personal email address is Yahoo! or Microsoft's(Nasdaq: MSFT) Hotmail -- many use them for remote access or as "spam sponges" for Internet registrations.

As Seth Jayson pointed out, 100 MB pales in comparison to Gmail's gigabyte, and I quote, "Free is free." With Gmail, you can store, label, organize, and prioritize a vast amount of information, with that lovely Google search function. (Myself, I've already got grand ideas for Gmail, including using it as a Web-based backup if my aging iMac explodes, which one day, it will.)

Meanwhile, Google's brilliant "invite a friend to join Gmail" strategy has folks jonesing for accounts despite the privacy issues. (I've been wondering if Gmail will almost entirely launch by viral means, reminiscent of that old shampoo commercial: "And she told two friends, and so on, and so on.... ")

Yahoo! hasn't matched the hype and hasn't matched the free gig. The service is improved, but I don't see a substantial barrier to user defection -- especially if Gmail starts offering remote access to other email accounts -- nor do I see compelling reasons why users would want to pony up the premium.

For more on Google, check out:

Alyce Lomax does not own shares of any of the companies mentioned. Her iMac has been hit by lightning, though it survived only needing its modem replaced.

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Schwab's Summer Doldrums

By Alyce Lomax (TMF Lomax)

Summer may be starting to sizzle, but Charles Schwab(NYSE: SCH) delivered another dose of tepid news today. The online broker said that a variety of current trends have left it unlikely to beat estimates for its coming second quarter. In a sector that may be offering some summertime bargains, Schwab may be the riskiest pick of all right now.

When explaining the likely shortfall, Schwab, a Motley Fool Stock Advisor pick, cited a litany of issues on people's minds right now: the possibility of rising interest rates; continued international uncertainties; and investors' newfound fickleness, likely the result of concerns that the market's overheated. Not to mention, summertime is notorious for tapered-off trading as people make getting away from it all a priority.

In May, Schwab's daily average revenue trades dropped 18% from April, and 6% from the same period the year before. Schwab said hitting the $0.11 per share estimate is unlikely because investors are dragging their feet and because of its recently instituted cuts in commission fees, its attempt to lure investors away from the competition.

Is this an understandable downturn? Recently, Fool contributor Roger Nusbaum, a former Schwab employee, voiced his concerns about the company's ability to compete in recent years, stating his case that Schwab's got a struggle on its hands.

But things are slowing down for the securities industry in general, and in that regard, Schwab certainly isn't alone. Just days ago, rival Ameritrade(Nasdaq: AMTD) said that trading volumes have slowed and warned that it will deliver earnings at the low end of guidance.

The important thing for investors to note is that trading lulls are normal. Meanwhile, for the next year or so, the online brokers, which also include E*Trade(NYSE: ET) and Toronto Dominion's(NYSE: TD) TD Waterhouse, face very difficult comparisons to the hot market in 2003.

Investors weren't put off, sending Schwab's stock about 2% higher, even though cost cuts and layoffs may loom. Indeed, all the stocks in the sector enjoyed a little boost today; all have retreated from their 52-week highs and some investors are likely bargain hunting.

The biggest question for investors, though, is whether Schwab is just one of the gang or really is struggling to attract and retain clients. It may be long after we say farewell to summer to know for sure, and as far as buying into the sector, it makes Schwab a shade riskier than the rest right now.

Alyce Lomax does not own shares of any of the companies mentioned.

Discussion Board of the Day: Boeing's Contract Win

Boeing edged out Lockheed Martin to win a $3.9-billion contract to build the Navy's new submarine-hunting airplane. Shares rallied on the positive news, which comes at a time when the company is facing an investigation into its space launch contracts. Should investors scoop up shares now or wait for prices to descend? Discuss your thoughts with other Fools on our Boeing discussion board.

Netflix Retains Edge

By Seth Jayson

If I held Netflix(Nasdaq: NFLX) stock, I wouldn't be too frightened. In fact, I might be giggling. Yesterday, the tech and business press was buzzing with descriptions of yet another crippling challenge to the rocketing home-movie wunderkind. This time it's a subscription-movie-download partnership between Starz and RealNetworks(Nasdaq: RNWK).

Why should the Netflix crowd be mirthful? Because the nature of the challenge and the subsequent headlines prove that people still don't get it. Video-on-demand (VOD) technology hasn't caught up with Netflix, no matter what the talking heads predict. That goes for TV-centered offerings as well as computer-based newcomers.

"Hold on there," you say. "Won't the new generations of media PCs and wireless home networks make it simple to get this content out of the den and into the living room?"

Don't bet on it. First off, we're talking about a limited selection of movies and a 20-minute download minimum. Next, keep in mind that home networks are still a pain for many users -- networking equipment suffers from very high return rates -- and most wireless gear doesn't have sufficient data throughput to rival the sound and video resolution you get from an actual DVD. Moreover, no computerized solution can rival the one-button simplicity of a DVD disc player.

I'm a total computer geek, the kind who builds his own multimedia PCs from scratch and runs a wired network throughout the house, and even I have no interest in Real's new service. On the other hand, I won't even bat an eyelash at the upcoming price increase from Netflix. Why? Simplicity: Netflix has it. Multimedia computers do not.

If there is an upcoming market shift to downloadable, on-demand movies, Motley Fool Stock Advisor pick TiVo(Nasdaq: TIVO)will probably do better, because it's already got a solid idea of how to make a complex media computer into an idiot-proof box. And don't forget that Netflix itself is trying to figure out the best way to move into VOD.

The latter company's subscriber expansion has left slow-moving competitors like Wal-Mart(NYSE: WMT) and Blockbuster(NYSE: BBI) in the dust. Though the stock is prone to stomach-churning swoons, and sustained profitability is still on the horizon, there's no doubt that the nimble Rule Breaker retains a comfortable advantage over would-be rivals.

For more Netflix and TiVo coverage:

Fool contributor Seth Jayson owns no company mentioned. View his Fool profile here.

Quote of Note

"In the modern world of business, it is useless to be a creative original thinker unless you can also sell what you create." -- David M. Ogilvy

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