Up Front: The Bloom Is Off the Web's Rose

SAN FRANCISCO (05/01/2000) - How many times has someone told you, "Hey, you can do that on the Web"? The first time, you may have wanted to read the latest issue of your favorite magazine without running down to the newsstand. Then maybe you wanted to buy a couple of books cheap. Now it's to find a mortgage, order groceries, or download your favorite music. Gee whiz, it seems like you can do everything on the Web.

Which doesn't automatically mean that you will--or should. Frankly, the Web's gee-whiz period is over. You don't need to look at the disappointing stock valuations of dot coms like EToys Inc. and Webvan, or follow the ups and downs of the Nasdaq to know the proverbial rubber has met the road. Now Web sites have to be more than gimmicky. They still don't have to turn a profit (unless, of course, you own their stock). They just have to make your life better.

Sure, nowadays you can sit down at your PC, navigate the aisles of an online grocer's sluggish Web site, and have Cheerios and milk delivered to your door as promptly as a pizza from Round Hut. But does taking that route make sense for everyone? Not at all. Now don't get me wrong. With twin two-year-olds, my wife and I are happy to wade through our online grocer's site and pay full price for produce we haven't even thumped just so we don't have to drag toddlers through a real store. But my bachelor brother up the street correctly shuns the siren call of Web delivery with a big "So what?"

Bah, Humbug To The Web

When did web cheerleading become Web skepticism? For me, it happened in stages.

First, I had to determine whether subscribing to the Wall Street Journal Interactive Edition was worth 59 bucks a year. As great as the WSJ is, I decided that I could get the news elsewhere online for free. Then I began noticing that every third CD I ordered from Amazon.com showed up in a cracked jewel case. In fact, the Elmo video I ordered online for my boys just arrived--and fell out of the box in three pieces. That never happened at my local Tower Records.

When I bought a new Dell PC online recently, I couldn't discover the tax and shipping costs until after I'd placed my order and Dell sent me an e-mail with the final tally--and Dell is a good online store. Finally, in light of stories that credit card numbers had been stolen from e-commerce sites, I decided not to buy a Rio player at a site I'd never used before (despite the great price) because I didn't want my Visa number sitting on yet another server.

Scenarios like these color a person's decision about whether to "do that" on the Web. In the past, we at PC World have explored the pitfalls and benefits of using the Web to do all sorts of things. We've looked at travel planning sites, home buying sites, health information sites--all in an effort to determine whether what's online is better than the real world.

This month, we pit Web sites that sell PCs against their retail and telephone-order counterparts in "The Buying Game: Best and Worst Places to Shop for a PC." Besides doing our own shopping, we surveyed more than 3000 PC World subscribers to hear what they thought of their experiences. Bottom line: The Web is good for expert shoppers--and it's nearly always better than retail. But for many people, picking up the phone and talking to a real live salesperson is the best choice.

In April, we launched a column by Senior Editor Harry McCracken called Web Savvy. Every month, Harry will look critically at a new or developing Web site genre. Always in the back of his mind will be the question "Is this good for consumers?" In this issue, Harry tackles the MP3 craze. As promising as MP3 downloads are, Harry is a Beatles fan, and there's a dearth of legitimate Fab Four tunes online (music pirates, of course, have better luck).

Somebody Is Watching You

Perhaps the biggest black eye the Web has received involves the lack of online privacy. News stories disclose Web sites collecting personal information, selling it, or losing it to hackers. Our latest special report, "Privacy 2000:

In Web We Trust?" is no exception. Contributing Editor Daniel Tynan details the trials and tribulations of regular Web surfers in a sea of information sharks.

He also hunkers down with a security expert whose hacking skills expose the Web's weak links.

Despite the Web's growing pains, I use it every day. But it takes time and effort to figure out what's worthwhile and what isn't. The Web is still in its infancy, and there's plenty to love about it. But if Web sites are to sell the average consumer on their virtues, they have to be as good as or better than their alternatives. Otherwise, few people will want to "do that" online.

Brad Grimes is PC World's executive editor for features.

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