Spring Comdex: Users vary on buying software over Net

The idea that the Internet is everywhere is itself ubiquitous, and Spring Comdex in Chicago this week is no exception. But users' reactions to buying software over the Internet remain highly varied, according to a very informal survey taken during the week.

For some users, there is simply no compelling reason to buy software over the Internet.

"I'm not dissatisfied with the way I get software now," which is through stores or through vendors directly, says Andrew Swiston, 25, systems analyst at Arthur Andersen in St. Charles, Illinois. "It's still just as easy to give vendors a call and it gives you a break from staring at the computer," Swiston says.

But other users find purchasing software over the Internet very convenient, including Rick Messinger, IS director at Compression, an Indianapolis, Indiana-based maker of prototypes ranging from sunglasses to fish hook removers.

"You're surfing and you find something cool and you want to buy it and bing, bing, bing, there you go," says Messinger, 33.

Messinger has bought between six and 12 applications on the Internet over the last year, all for his personal use and which caught his eye while surfing at home. "If you're at a Web site already, then it's very much a convenience" to be able to purchase and download the software, he says. Recent purchases include several games, and Internet software, including Netscape Communications' Navigator, Messinger says.

For other users, geography is the decisive factor, as they use the Internet to gain access to software unavailable to them through other channels.

"Most of the software I look for on the Net is not for sale in Argentina," says Carlos Vasquez Varela, CEO of Sistemas SRI, a software developer based in Buenos Aires. Within the past year, Vasquez Varela has bought four applications on the Internet, including a hard-to-find printing utility he needed for a Hewlett-Packard machine.

Moreover, for Vasquez Varela, the Internet serves as a means to find out about the software in the first place. "I wouldn't have known about the printing utility" without the option to do a search on it over the Internet, he says.

The Internet helps some users get around their geographic realities, but other users remain constrained. In Saudi Arabia, would-be Internet users are held at bay by two prongs of a very strong fork: the lack of telecommunications infrastructure and the Saudi Arabian government, according to Marwan Bayoumi, management information systems manager for Abudawood for Industry, a Jeddah-based maker of bleach.

Bayoumi has not bought software over the Internet, because doing so is too expensive. There is currently no number to call to dial into the Internet from within Saudi Arabia, according to Bayoumi, 34. Instead, users must call the US or elswhere to obtain "call-back" service, which lets them surf the Web from lines within that country, says Bayoumi. The cost is around US$3 per minute, which is only the beginning of the charges incurred by making purchases over the Net, Bayoumi says.

The Saudi Arabian government levies customs duties of 20% on software and some other goods coming into the country, which would be added to the cost of the software if it was too big to download from the Net and had to be shipped, according to Bayoumi.

Instead of using the Internet, Bayoumi relies on his relationship with US company Clorox, to whom Abudawood for Industry sells its bleach, to get access to some software, including Microsoft's Windows 95, Windows NT, and Lotus' Notes, he says.

Bayoumi's software purchasing options also include buying from Dubai, which he calls the "Hong Kong" of the Middle East. Unlike Saudi Arabia, where foreign companies must have a Saudi Arabian sponsor in order to do business, Dubai is an open market, according to Bayoumi. "There's no need to go outside on the Internet and buy" because most US vendors maintain huge warehouses in Dubai for shipping to Middle Eastern countries, Bayoumi says. Pricing is deliberately kept comparable to US prices, because vendors like Microsoft want to encourage the legitimate purchasing of software, rather than the piracy prevalent in many regions, according to Bayoumi.

Nor is piracy is the only criminal activity influencing users' software purchasing options and decisions. Several users who purchased software over the Internet say they did so cautiously and with a particular strategy in mind.

Compression's Messinger made his purchases in stages. "I'd buy something and watch my credit card statements and make sure nothing was happening," Messinger says.

Over time, Messinger has become more comfortable with the idea of putting payment information out on the Net. "Security is an issue, but using the right tools makes it not a major concern," he says. Among the tools Messinger feels fairly comfortable with is Netscape's browser, which he uses.

Security concerns are a large part of the reason Arthur Andersen's Swiston does not purchase software via the Internet. "It still doesn't feel real secure," he says, noting the warning messages to that affect which accompany many transactions on the Net.

But others, including Sistemax' Vazquez Varela, made the jump to purchasing software over the Net inspite of their misgivings about security.

"The first time I did it, I closed my eyes," Vazquez Varela says. "Nothing bad happened, so I did it again.

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