Weekly Wire
Nashville Scene Getting Crowded

Heavy traffic is everywhere during the holiday season

By James Hanback Jr.

DECEMBER 28, 1998:  Nothing in life is ever as easy as we hope it will be. Even simple acts like crawling out of bed in the morning can become laborious, futile efforts when we hear the soft patter of rain outside.

Nowadays, of course, those who choose to stay at home on a rainy day may do so without fear of wasting their lives, mainly because of the Internet. With people telecommuting to work, e-mailing important documents back and forth, it's no wonder that the Internet has also been a popular holiday shopping place this year. People are getting used to doing things electronically, and for many, the Internet has offered the perfect solution to fighting shoppers in overcrowded stores.

But because we live in a world where things rarely turn out to be as easy as they seem, even Internet shoppers this year have discovered their share of frustrations (albeit far less than those who have been brave enough to venture to the shopping malls). Net shoppers may have been sitting at home in a comfortable chair surfing www.toysrus.com, but they've still experienced overcrowding in the form of Internet bandwidth.

"Bandwidth" is the term given to the number of connections that a server can handle. The more connections a computer has at a given time, the slower that server will perform. The Internet, since it went mainstream, has had its share of bandwidth problems--the most recent examples being when Kenneth Starr's report was released to Congress and when the Space Shuttle Discovery was launched. Both events resulted in clogged news media Web sites all over the Net.

Fortunately for Internet shoppers, most online stores this year haven't been quite as clogged as the news services were on those breaking-news days. But the stores have been clogged. Wary Internet shoppers, meanwhile, have figured out that the "big-name" stores would be just as busy online as they are in the physical world. With the help of portals and search engines, these smart shoppers have instead directed their Web browsers to less heavily trafficked sites.

Even though I tend to be a pretty wary Net user myself, I must admit that I did try shopping for some of my Christmas gifts at the larger, more well-known stores online. Just as predicted, I found the experience frustrating and slow.

Among the two biggies were Toys R Us and BuyGames.com. Although the Toys R Us shopping interface is easy to use, allowing one to browse with ease, the purchasing process was dramatically slower than at other sites. Some items that were cataloged as "in stock" suddenly appeared as "out of stock" once I attempted to place them in my virtual shopping cart. When I finally did find an in-stock item and attempted to buy it, the secure purchase server timed out on me--every time. I never even got a chance to enter my purchasing information.

Certain I was experiencing a bandwidth problem at Toys R Us, I abandoned the site and tried BuyGames.com. Unlike the rest of the "buy.com" stores, BuyGames.com responded slowly even when I was browsing--although I did finally get to place an order. More problematic was the fact that the store promised to ship my purchase the following day, though as of this writing I still have not received it. Upon tracking my order status--a feature all online stores should offer--I discovered that the item was back-ordered, a fact that should have been made known to me before I typed in my credit card information. It's worth noting that I did have better luck with other "buy.com" stores, such as BuyComp.com and BuySoft.com.

Surprisingly, not all the popular online stores were as bandwidth-starved as the two mentioned above. Amazon.com and Bloomingdales.com were much more responsive than I thought they would be. Likewise, stores like Brookstone.com and candle shop The Wick's End (www.wicksend.com), both of which advertised heavily on Internet shopping portal Surfari-Mall (www.surfari-mall.com), had quick response times and relatively good shipping times.

In spite of the few problems I encountered, my Internet Christmas shopping this year was probably the least stressful and most tolerable such experience I've ever had. Speaking as a man who hates to shop, surfing the Internet stores had, for me, the "painless dentist" effect: I still didn't want to do it, but at least it didn't hurt.

New look

Taking a cue from the success of the iMac, Apple computer is abandoning the traditional beige look of its popular G3 desktop business computer. According to a report at www.news.com, the new Macintosh desktops will feature the iMac's curvy, translucent plastic design and faster processors ranging from 333 to 400mhz.

With the exception of the 266mhz G3 desktops, Apple has apparently depleted its entire line of G3s. The model was Apple's best-selling computer ever until the iMac came along in August.

The new G3 is scheduled to hit stores in January. Like the iMac, the computers will come sans floppy drives and with built-in USB and Ethernet ports. The new machines will also be the first Macs to implement fully FireWire technology, an advancement that allows true plug-and-play of internal peripheral hardware (such as CD-ROMs).

To reach James Hanback, e-mail him at jhanback@nashvillescene.com.

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