Computer Column


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Every once in a while a new product or service comes along that consumers absolutely love.

We’ve heard fly-fishing fanatics wax rhapsodic about the Berkley Graphite Rod, and skiers these days are equally nuts about the new “super-sidecut” models from a number of manufacturers.

In the auto world, the Honda Accord seems to generate this kind of affection; people who own that car tend to love it like a member of the family.

And every once in a while, a product like that appears in the personal computer business as well.

For more than a decade, the Apple II and its younger brother, the Macintosh, were practically cult objects; whenever we had the temerity to criticize Apple PCs in this column, we were deluged with furious letters from the true believers.

The Lotus 1-2-3 spreadsheet and early versions of WordPerfect enjoyed similar devotion.

And now there’s another favorite an Internet site, this time, that is wildly popular with customers. And for good reason. It’s an online bookstore from a company called Amazon (

Yeah, we know what you’re thinking there are all sorts of sites on the Web that allow you to call up and order a book for express shipment. But nobody has done it as thoroughly, or as well, as Amazon.

Amazon advertises itself as the “world’s biggest” bookstore, with more than a million titles to choose from. If you’re interested in skiing, it has 660 titles; if you want to learn French, it has more than a thousand. And so on. (Of course, Amazon doesn’t keep all those books on a shelf; it calls up distributors or publishers once you order.)

Most important, Amazon has created a fast and easy search system that makes it a snap to find any of those million books or just to browse through them by title, author, subject, or even just a vague idea.

The Amazon site also includes interviews with authors, publishing industry info, and online book reviews, both from major publications and from interested book lovers who want to share their opinions.

As you search, you create a shopping list for the books you want. When you’re finished, Amazon bills your credit card and ships them.

It’s fast and easy. In our experience, it takes about five minutes to order a book from Amazon, and then you wait about five days before it arrives.

The company has even figured out a way to spare you the necessity of typing in your credit card number on the Internet, if it scares you to do so. They will call you to check it after you place your order.

Amazon usually discounts books by 10 percent to 30 percent, and you generally don’t have to pay sales tax. But you do pay shipping charges.

Add it all up, and we figure a book bought at Amazon generally costs about $2 more than the price at a retail store assuming your nearby store has the title you want.

We like this company. And we’re not alone. Hundreds of customers held an online love-in for Amazon on the Internet recently, after Microsoft’s online magazine Slate ( published an article attacking it.

For its article, Slate ran a test. It ordered a hot best seller both from Amazon and from local retail stores and lo and behold, the local stores delivered the volume faster! So why would anybody bother with the online bookstore?

The analysis in this article was, to be blunt, pretty lame. Of course it’s easy to find the latest best seller locally. Nowadays, even grocery stores have it for sale. Amazon’s strength comes from supplying books that aren’t among the few thousand titles a local bookstore has on hand. Further, Amazon lets you browse, chat with other bibliophiles, and order from its catalog at any hour of the day or night.

The most interesting thing about this article was the response it generated. Over the ensuing weeks, scores of loyal Amazon customers sent flame mail to Slate, attacking the magazine and defending their beloved online bookstore.

Last we counted, there were about 200 defenders of Amazon for every one person who agreed with the criticism. An official of the online store wrote that he had planned a long defense of his company but realized it wasn’t necessary because the customers were so fervid in their own defense of Amazon.

It has been quite some time since we’ve seen a computer-industry product or service that has spawned such a devoted corps of happy customers. We hope that Amazon can maintain its standards of efficiency and comprehensiveness and that other Web companies can emulate its helpful ways.

T.R. Reid is Rocky Mountain bureau chief of the Washington Post. Brit Hume is a Capitol Hill correspondent for ABC News. You can reach them in care of the Washington Post Writers Group, 1150 15th St., Washington D.C. 20071-9200, or you can e-mail T.R. Reid at [email protected], or Brit Hume at [email protected].

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