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The Web can Bite Back!

"The Dark Side of E-Commerce"

A 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 at

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, 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 them.

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.

Unfortunately, CD 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 impractical.

Another disadvantage 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.

Still, e-commerce 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.


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January 31, 2006