Dark Side of E-Commerce"
Cautionary Tale of "Virtual Caveat Emptor"
By Jim Bray
If you aren't shopping
online, you might as well be shopping in the Stone Age.
At least, that's the
feeling I get from some commercials and commentary these days.
The new gospel is,
apparently, that e-commerce is the future.
For all its advantages
-- and there are many -- shopping online merely provides us with another
choice. There are enough downsides to it that I don't think your neighborhood
Pep Boys franchisee will be forced to close up shop and go sweep floors
Let me recount a tale
of "virtual caveat emptor."
I recently rushed
into cyberspace in a buying frenzy to get The Who's new live album, "The
Blues to the Bush." It's being sold online as a tie-in to the group's
recently announced (at this writing) tour.
As a diehard Who fan,
I'll spend my after-tax dollars on any new release from the lads -- even
a rehash of an old album -- because you never know what gems you'll find.
The remastered Live at Leeds, for instance, has such great sound and dynamic
range that I use it as a test record when I'm reviewing audio systems.
If there ever were a CD that can test a system's mettle, it's that one.
Just ask the guy who
sold me my replacement woofers.
So, without any conscious
thought, I surfed by Musicmaker.com, and was overjoyed to find the album
there as advertised.
Twenty live tracks
were available, and you could buy as few or as many as you wanted, either
on a CD (which I assume they burn to your order), or -- for those wanting
instant gratification -- as a download.
I wanted them all,
and I wanted them right then -- so I happily and immediately downloaded
Then, the ugly reality
of e-commerce hit. The part where they took my money, via credit card,
went very smoothly -- which figures. The rest, however, was another story.
I had to download
each track separately, which was a small annoyance. Eventually, all the
tracks were safely on my hard drive -- in alphabetical order, rather than
the order in which they were supposedly played.
What was worse was
that double-clicking on a track the first time didn't get me music; I
got a hyperlink to follow for "unlocking" the tracks, and despite the
advertised ability to unlock 'em all at once, each track had to be verified
individually -- in a sloppy and exasperating process.
It eventually worked,
and now, I can play the tracks (in the proper order, too, because I copied
the track listings from the Web site, and saved them as a Word document).
What really rubbed
me the wrong way, though, was the "Windows Media" format of the music
files: it only plays on a computer, and I wanted to burn my own CD so
I could play it on my audio system -- at home or in the car.
players don't recognize ".wma" files.
To be fair, the Web
site's "Help" section explains this, but I didn't think of looking there
until after I'd paid my money and taken my chances.
Heck, if I hadn't
been blissfully anticipating The Who Nirvana, it would have occurred to
me that the "wave" file CDs use would be huge, making downloading them
to downloading was that the liner notes were only available (in this particular
instance, anyway) by paging through interminable screens on the Web site.
If you want to keep them, you have to paste them into your word processor,
then, reformat them into some semblance of order.
So, today at least,
my opinion of e-commerce is that it stinks.
On the other hand,
I ordered a book online once, and that worked out just fine. The only
problem was that I couldn't pick the book up and look it over to "get
a feel" for it before giving my credit card number.
And what do you do
if a product's defective? You can undoubtedly send it back, but then you
have to eat the freight.
The Internet is a
marvelous place to compare features and products, but if you're buying
online, you could find that cyberspace is, indeed, cold and dark.
is here, and for the most part, it's good -- as long as you remember that
the phrase "buyer beware" is even more true in the virtual world than
it is in the real one.
Jim Bray's technology columns are distributed by the TechnoFILE and Mochila Syndicates. Copyright Jim Bray.