Notes from the E-Commerce Chopping Block

Every now and then, the world of e-commerce produces an idea that makes you want to shake your head sagely and sigh in a superior manner because you know it won’t work.

Conversely, every now and then an idea comes along that you absolutely, positively know is good, but for some reason it doesn’t work either. Sometimes the marketing geniuses screw up fine technological ideas. But sometimes technology itself goes awry.

Here is a small survey of some bad ideas that deserve to die and some good ones that are gasping for life.

Hack-Proofing in Their Dreams

“The Man” will never stop peer-to-peer computing, as in music file-swapping. Recording company execs must think that with digital rights management (DRM) they can settle into a peaceful slumber and all those nasty Napster thieves will disappear into the night.

The next morning the record industry moguls will wake up to the sound of music store cash registers ringing, like nothing ever happened. Once again, they’ll be able to charge outlandish prices for mediocre CDs — with maybe two good songs — and nobody will complain.

Forrester Research says record labels will lose $3.1 billion (US$) by 2005, but all they’ve come up with to stop the bleeding is DRM, which supposedly enables content providers to set restrictions on the use of material. DRM is a bad idea.

As anyone who has ever logged on to the World Wide Web knows, it only takes one hacker to break a security code, and in the spirit of Napster, put it out there on the Net for everyone to see.

The recording industry is pouring a ton of money into DRM technology. Some unemployed college dropout three months behind on his rent will make it money poorly spent.

Authors Who Would Be King

E-books are a bad idea, and the reason is simple: You can’t curl up with a computer. You can’t sit comfortably in a rocking chair beside a roaring fire with a laptop in your lap.

It would be folly to toss a laptop into your beach bag with the expectation of reading it while stretched out in a chaise lounge — sun beating down, sand blowing.

Forget Stephen King’s success — that was a novelty and an aberration. Stephen King books are ideally suited to the superficial nature of the Internet because they can be read quickly and with little thought.

But for serious readers of serious books, nothing will ever replace a nicely-bound volume except a weathered paperback you can tuck into your back pocket.

Cars and Flowers

I will never buy a car online. You want to sit in a car and feel it, smell it, see how it drives, what kind of pick-up it has. There are dozens of personal reasons why people buy cars — and you just can’t get personal through a computer.

I will never buy pants online. A size 32-waist in one store is a 36-inch waist in another. Or shirts. A shirt has to hang just right before I’ll buy it.

I’ll never buy groceries. You cannot (no matter how hard you try) squeeze a peach online. I will never bank online, with all the security problems.

I will buy computers, computer equipment, flowers, magazines and real books.

Purple Taxis

Is it arrogance, stupidity or a complete detachment from reality that makes certain e-decision-makers presume the majority of humans crave 24/7 attachment to the Web?

The latest news from that front is that Yahoo! has unleashed some purple taxis in New York that are rigged with Internet connections to serve the legions of Americans who can’t get across town without an online fix.

Why not just have a cable wired directly into your bloodstream?

The Late, Great Interactive TV

A great idea that should have taken off by now is Web TV, interactive TV, enhanced TV, whatever you want to call it. Meshing two home favorites — channel surfing and Web surfing — is as American as apple pie and voyeurism.

You would think that with an estimated $50 billion per year currently spent on TV ads in the United States alone, the profit motive would drive the technology much faster. But, no.

Less than five percent of all TV programming is enhanced, and most of that involves old stuff like weather, games and episodic programming. Interactive TV will hit with a vengeance in three years, they say.

Some technologies are ahead of the times. This one is way behind.

The Skinny on Broadband

Broadband should also be ubiquitous by now. If the Internet is a great idea, a faster Internet is a greater idea. After sampling broadband, going back to even the speediest dial-up feels like going from a Bentley to a dump truck with leaking power steering fluid.

By all accounts, broadband providers have bungled in just about every conceivable way, from the delay in rolling out infrastructure to poor customer service, unrealistic pricing, and the failure to offer access to minorities and rural dwellers.

Super idea. Terrible execution.

There are dozens more good, bad and e-ugly ideas bouncing around out there. What we need now are some reality-based cyber-planners willing to lubricate the gears of technology with a little common sense before the Internet turns into a great, big cyber-junkyard.

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