NEW YORK It's a lot like ''The Apprentice,'' except nobody gets fired.
Hoping to capitalize on the sensational buzz around NBC's hit reality show, AOL is launching an online feature that will follow the travails of four small-business owners for their first 12 months.
''The Startup'' will be featured on America Online's customized service for small-business owners, but it will also be available for any of AOL's 24 million subscribers.
The feature, which is being done in cooperation with Entre-preneur magazine, goes live today.
Sarah Bernard, the head of AOL for Small Business, said the feature was not modeled specifically on the hit NBC show, and had been in the works for some time. But she said its debut was adjusted to capitalize on the buzz around ''The Apprentice,'' whose final episode airs next week.
''The Startup'' will follow the ups and downs of four businesses: an adventure park in Colorado Springs, Colo.; a spa in New Orleans; a gourmet salsa company based in Vermont; and a teenage clothing store in Corpus Christi, Texas.
Bernard said the businesses were chosen for geographical diversity, among other factors. ''We wanted businesses our users could relate to not someone who started with $50 million in seed money,'' Bernard said.
The site will feature weekly updates on online journals, or ''blogs,'' from the business owners, monthly stories written by staffers from Entrepreneur, as well as weekly video vignettes from the business.
As for not firing people, Bernard said: ''It's not a contest, it's not who's going to win. It's real-life experiences.''
Australians improve passport security
CONCORD, N.H. Australia, one of the United States' strongest allies, has added a new weapon to its arsenal a toaster-sized document reader that tells in seconds whether a passport is a fraud and identifies travelers who might be included on terrorist watch lists.
''What we're trying to do is strengthen border security by making sure that the people who are coming into this country are who they say they are,'' said Tim Chapman, a manager with Australia's Customs Service.
In a multimillion-dollar contract, Australia has installed 400 iA-thenticate units from Imag-ing Automation Inc. of Bedford, N.H., at its international airports in hopes of authenticating the documents of every person entering.
The system ranges from $5,000 to $15,000 per unit. It uses multiple light sources to examine hundreds of security features on travel documents. Many of the features, including the composition of ink, are invisible to the naked eye.
Australia joins Canada, Hungary, Sweden, Finland and Nigeria among the countries using or testing the iA-thenticate system. The Dallas-Fort Worth and Boston airports and a company that contracts with nuclear plants use the system to check credentials of prospective employees.
Chapman said the system was deployed in Australia in mid-February and already has detected false documents. Without giving details, he said the people might not have been detected beforehand.
Imaging Automation is trying to sell its system to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, which is facing delays in its plans to incorporate passport-validating fingerprint and facial biometrics at border crossings.
Bay area named nation's 'most wired'
SAN JOSE, Calif. The San Francisco Bay area is the nation's top market for wireless Internet hot spots, according to a new study sponsored by Intel Corp.
The region was followed by Orange County, Calif., Washing-ton, D.C., and Austin, Texas. Last year's ''most unwired'' area, Portland, Ore., was bumped to No. 5 on the list compiled for the semiconductor giant by ''Best Places'' author Bert Sperling.
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