If you've heard that electronic commerce is about to take off—and you look to the software industry for leadership in how best to market and sell products online—you're likely to wind up grounded.
There is no doubt more people are shopping for, and buying, goods on the Web: Market research firm IntelliQuest found that, of the 62 million US adults on the Internet, nearly 60 percent shopped and 17 percent completed a purchase online during the fourth quarter of 1997. In February, the Internet marketing newsletter Iconocast estimated that computer products were the no. 1 category of goods purchased online in the previous 12 months, accounting for 25 percent of all online buys.
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So you might conclude that, as a group, software publishers and computer retailers would make good role models: Besides, they did build the online shopping center. But after spending a day shopping for four popular products—Microsoft Office, FileMaker Pro, Broderbund's Riven, and Symantec's Norton Utilities—I found far too many sites more adept at preventing e-commerce than promoting it.
My needs were simple: Get information on what a product did, find out if it would run on my computer, and buy it. Egghead's (www.egghead.com) product search option never let me get that far: It returned a "Server Error," then repeatedly stated, "Product Search is currently unavailable." When I finally found a product to put in my e-shopping cart, the CYA disclaimers on the purchase page were longer than the order itself. MicroWarehouse (www.microwarehouse.com) refused to let me put anything in a shopping cart without filling out a detailed questionnaire and getting a password. Imagine a grocery store refusing to give you a basket unless you present a passport.
Too many sites—such as e-Warehouse (www.e-warehouse.net), Netscape's Software Depot (software-depot.netscape. com), and Seattle-based TechWave's Buy Software (www.buysoftware.com)—had few or no product descriptions or system requirements, just product name and price. CompUSA (www.compusa.com) added one more twist to info-deprivation—its product information for FileMaker and other products was in ALL CAPS AS IF THE SALESPERSON WERE SHOUTING AT YOU. Perhaps it would have read better if I'd been wearing a hearing aid.
I turned to the publishers, hoping they would at least know how to sell their own products. Symantec (www.symantec.com) did the best, with a well-organized "Shop Symantec" page. Broderbund (www.broderbund.com), for all of its attractive product offers, appeared to be taking database lessons from Egghead: The site repeatedly spewed indecipherable error messages whenever I tried to click on a product or category. Microsoft simply referred shoppers to nearby physical stores. Only problem there was that many of the stores are gone, including the Auburn SuperMall's Computer City and lots of Egghead locations.
But the virtual surreality award went to FileMaker, formerly Claris (www.
claris.com). The "Pricing Information" page lists prices, then informs you that all the prices are "estimated," and that you must add $6.95 shipping and handling per unit, along with appropriate state sales tax. And even should you want to pay an "estimated" price, there is no way to buy—or even click on anything on the page.
That's not to say every computer product site is awful. Cyberian Outpost (www.outpost.com) has a clean, easy-to-navigate site, and offers a news-letter, international language pages, and manufacturer rebate coupons. Good things even happen to partly bad sites: Netscape's Software Depot brims with specials, CompUSA tells you if a product is on back order, and MicroWarehouse presents products very well.
Still, it's good to remember that pioneer doesn't equate with expert. When it comes to e-commerce, recommending that businesses turn solely to software companies for advice on how to sell online probably makes as much sense as suggesting that airlines turn to aerospace engineers for advice on how to profit at passenger service.
It was a tie between Microsoft and Apple at last week's 1998 Excellence in Software Awards, presented by the Software Publishers Association (www.spa.org) at a gala in San Jose. Each firm (Apple through its Claris-turned-FileMaker software subsidiary) picked up four Codies. Microsoft Office 97 got two, Microsoft Expedia and Encarta Encyclopedia 98 Deluxe received one each. FileMaker won for FileMaker Pro 4.0 and ClarisWorks for Kids. Other local winners were RealNetworks (for RealPlayer Plus) and ONYX Software (for ONYX Customer Center).
Weirdest category-award mismatch of the 39: Intuit's TurboTax for Business as Best Niche Market Software Program. Software for every taxpayer in America is quite a niche—someone ought to tell the IRS.
Frank Catalano, a Seattle-area analyst for interactive multimedia and software companies, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Complete Byte Me archives are available at www.catalanoconsulting.com
Netscape's Software Depot
TechWave's Buy Software
Software Publishers Association