Sunday, March 04, 2007

Connecticut Investigating Best Buy's Intrastore Web Site

By Evan Schuman, Ziff Davis Internet

Best Buy is getting into some hot water because of an intrastore version of its Web site.

The Connecticut Attorney General's Office has launched a probe into the chain's use of an internal version of its Web site that looks and acts virtually identical to the public Web version except that it sometimes offers higher prices, according to Connecticut Attorney General Richard Blumenthal.

Blumenthal, in a telephone interview with eWEEK.com on March 3, said his office began the probe after a column published by The Hartford Courant raised questions about the site.

Although the probe began on Feb. 9, Best Buy officials have yet to formally talk with the attorney general's investigators, instead opting to send "a written communication," Blumenthal said. That communication was less than explicit, he said. In an interview with the Courant, Blumenthal said, "Their responses seem to raise as many questions as they answer. Their answers are less than crystal clear."

What Best Buy is accused of doing is misleading consumers. The original reports had store associates disputing special offers announced on the Web site and making their case by calling up a copy of the Web site right there and then, in the store.

The initial question raised by the reports were whether this was simply a matter of having Web site prices for Web purchases—requiring the delay of shipments for the consumer and the lack of brick-and-mortar costs for the retailer—being different from in-store prices. But the initial defenses offered by Best Buy—both to local media and to the Connecticut Attorney General's Office—make no mention of this. If that were the case here, one would think it would be the first defense offered.

The Courant columnist, George Gombossy, told eWEEK.com that employees described to him their ability to access either the public Web site or the intrastore version, depending on what they wanted to do.

He published an account of his attempts to replicate the problems of one of his readers, in which he was indeed able to reproduce the apparent dual Web site bait-and-switch scheme, he said. He wrote that one "long-time employee" showed him both versions of the site.

"The salesman told me it was a site that only employees could access because it contained confidential information as well as item prices. Sometimes, as in the case of [a product that had been purchased by the reader who complained], the clerk said, the intranet site would not show the discount. In rare cases, the intranet site will show an even lower price than the Internet site."

Best Buy officials did not immediately return calls seeking comment, but they apparently did issue a statement to the Courant that said, in part: "Although we have an intra-store web site in place to support store operations—including products and pricing—we are reminding our employees how to access the external BestBuy.com web site to ensure customers are receiving the best possible product price."

That line prompted Gombossy to try to put that education process into context. "That last sentence seems to indicate that Best Buy, which is supposed to be staffed by tech-savvy employees, is putting the blame on memory lapses: that employees have somehow forgotten how to access BestBuy.com from the store. Having been to many Best Buy stores where some helpful employees showed me how they access the intranet and Internet, I can assure Best Buy officials that the re-education process will probably not be lengthy," he said. "After making sure the computer is turned on, employees should click twice on the Yahoo Internet icon and then type in BestBuy.com."

The initial reports of the incident suggested the possibility that Best Buy was simply displaying a local version of the Web site, so that consumers could peruse their Web content but be unable to surf over to a competitor's site or a price-comparison site or even to a publication such as Consumer Reports.

If that had been the case, then the pricing disconnects might have been nothing sinister, but merely a result of the fact that the external Web site is updated much more frequently than a static version in the stores.

But some of our own conversations with Best Buy employees March 3 cast doubt on that theory, with employees saying that they are only aware of the public version. (Gombossy's reporting also found many Best Buy employees who were unaware of two sites.)

Another scenario is that the dual-site effort might be regionally localized, as opposed to being a national corporate effort. But that also seems unlikely, as such a site would likely be sanctioned by corporate. Why would such a site be created and then only offered to isolated areas? Is this some sort of a pilot program? This is one story eWEEK.com will be watching closely.

Retail Center Editor Evan Schuman has tracked high-tech issues since 1987, has been opinionated long before that and doesn't plan to stop any time soon. He can be reached at Evan_Schuman@ziffdavis.com.

Wednesday, February 28, 2007

RIAA Opposes New Fair Use Bill

New bill would let customers make limited numbers of copies of copyrighted works
By Grant Gross, IDG News Service

A new bill in the U.S. Congress aimed at protecting the fair use rights for consumers of copyright material would "legalize hacking," the Recording Industry Association of America said.

The Freedom and Innovation Revitalizing U.S. Entrepreneurship (FAIR USE) Act, introduced Tuesday by U.S. Representatives Rick Boucher, a Virginia Democrat, and John Doolittle, a California Republican, would allow customers to circumvent digital copy restrictions in six limited areas when copyright owners' business models are not threatened, Boucher said in a press release. So-called fair use doctrine allows customers of copyright works to make limited numbers of copies, particularly for reviews, news reporting, teaching and research.

The bill would allow exemptions to the anticircumvention restrictions in the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA), passed by Congress in 1998. The bill is revamped from similar bills introduced in the last two sessions of Congress, Boucher said.

"The fair use doctrine is threatened today as never before," Boucher said in a statement. "Historically, the nation's copyright laws have reflected a carefully calibrated balanced between the rights of copyright owners and the rights of the users of copyrighted material. The Digital Millennium Copyright Act dramatically tilted the copyright balance toward complete copyright protection at the expense of the public's right to fair use."

But the RIAA said the bill would effectively repeal the DMCA. The bill would "allow electronics companies to induce others to break the law for their own profit," it said in a statement. Advances such digital music sales, online games, on-demand movies and e-books can be traced to DMCA protects, the RIAA said.

"The difference between hacking done for non-infringing purposes and hacking done to steal is impossible to determine and enforce," the RIAA said in its statement.

The Boucher bill would limit the availability of statutory damages against individuals and firms who may be found to have engaged in contributory infringement, inducement of infringement, or other indirect infringement. The bill would allow libraries to circumvent digital locks or secure copies of works that have been damaged, lost or stolen.

The Consumer Electronics Association applauded the bill, saying it would give protections to consumers, educators, and libraries. Without fair use protections, consumers couldn't use devices such as VCRs and digital TV recorders, the trade group said.

Monday, February 26, 2007

BitTorrent, Joost Put Download Tech to Legal Use

By Reuters
SAN FRANCISCO—There was a time when the phrase "peer-to-peer" (P2P) was practically a curse word in the music industry.

But in the past month, two new services have emerged to utilize the technology for the legal, protected distribution of content—specifically video.

One of them is BitTorrent, which developed the technology that at one point was used for one-third of all P2P traffic on the Internet. The other is Joost—formerly known as the Venice Project—which was founded by the same developers who created the notorious Kazaa music-swapping community and later the Skype Internet telephone service.

Both BitTorrent and Joost rely on P2P technology to enhance the user experience. The more popular a file is on either network, the easier and faster it will be to download. Whereas the iTunes store shut down last Christmas because of overwhelming demand, services like BitTorrent and Joost are designed to improve as demand increases.

Despite their history with unauthorized digital content distribution, both services are setting themselves up to provide some of the better digital entertainment services available today. The question is: Will their technology credibility be sufficient to lure into a more legitimate environment the millions of downloaders who previously have used their technology to steal content?

BitTorrent

More than 135 million people have downloaded the BitTorrent technology worldwide. It basically lets people publish content to the Internet in a way that enables multiple users to quickly download large files by sharing the distribution load. While it has several legitimate uses—game publishers use it to distribute software updates—it also is used by such sites as Pirate Bay to allow illegal downloads of Hollywood movies.

The company hopes to convert these users into legitimate customers through the BitTorrent Entertainment Network, which launches Feb. 26. The new service has compiled the rights to more than 3,000 movies, 1,000 games and 1,000 music videos from 34 participating content providers.

The move makes BitTorrent a distributor—connecting content owners to the technology's users in an attempt to monetize their interest in digital entertainment. Like any authorized digital music service, the challenge is to entice consumers away from a free, pirated environment into a paid, legal one. The strategy aims to offer a better experience than the chaotic pirate sites.

"You never saw an ad that says, 'Use iTunes because it's legal,'" BitTorrent COO Ashwin Navin says. "What users care about is getting their favorite content in a digital format. Only a very small percentage of our users are pirating content because they are anti-establishment or want to fight the man."

Users can rent movies at $4 each, download-to-own TV shows and music videos for $2 and get user-generated content free. The company also plans to add a digital-rights-management-free music download service in the near future.

Joost

While BitTorrent works a rental download model, Joost is an ad-supported streaming video service currently in beta testing. Of the many sources providing video at this time, Warner Music Group (WMG), Nettwerk, MusicNation, Voy and now Viacom are all contributing music videos and other music-themed programming.

Joost takes streaming video to a new level, with TiVo-like user controls and a high-quality full-screen display that captured the attention of content partners. Like BitTorrent, it uses P2P technology to optimize the streaming process.

But what really sets Joost apart is its ability to add widgets, or plug-ins—small applications that run atop the streaming video screen, enabling a degree of interactivity.

For instance, a chat tool allows users viewing the same video to discuss it with one another in real time. Joost not only allows but encourages content providers to create their own plug-ins customized for their video.

MusicNation is one such provider. The company conducts an online battle-of-the-bands competition on its Web site and will be providing exclusive content to Joost. It plans to create a live voting plug-in as part of that process.

"It wasn't just about the display," MusicNation founder and chief marketing officer Lucas Mann says, "it was about building a dynamic experience."

Thursday, February 22, 2007

Microsoft releases list of verified Vista applications

But some notable apps are conspicuously missing
Eric Lai (Computerworld)

Microsoft Corp. on Wednesday released a list of 800 applications it has officially verified so far to run bug-free on Windows Vista.

The list is notable for both its brevity and the absence of many applications popular on Windows XP, although Microsoft and analysts said that the majority of XP software can run, albeit with hiccups, on Vista.

Popular Windows software that is conspicuously missing from Microsoft's list includes Adobe Systems Inc.'s entire line of graphics and multimedia software, Symantec Corp.'s security products, as well as the Mozilla Foundation's open-source Firefox Web browser, Skype Ltd.'s free voice-over-IP software and the OpenOffice.org alternative to Microsoft Office.

Software that has been tested as part of Microsoft's Vista certification program to run on all 32- and 64-bit versions of Vista include CorelDraw and WordPerfect from Corel Corp., PowerDVD from Cyberlink, Nero 7 Premium, Trend Micro AntiVirus and PC-Cillin, AutoCad 2008, QuickBooks 2007 from Intuit Inc., Microsoft Office 2007 and many other Microsoft applications.

In addition, Google Inc.'s Desktop Search and its Toolbar for Internet Explorer have earned Microsoft's approval.

Windows' extensive software ecosystem has long been one of the operating system's chief attractions. But Vista's long beta program last year allowed users to start compiling their own lists of applications that they claimed were broken or problematic on Vista.

Many of those were graphics-intensive games, which was the result of a new rendering engine, DirectX 10, introduced for Vista. But there are also a number of business and utility applications that have not been updated to ensure Vista compatibility. For instance, the latest version of Skype doesn't work on Vista. Firefox does work, though Mozilla has documented known issues

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