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Tech Industry

Doing the soft sell on the Net

The Software Publishers Association releases a set of guidelines for online distributors and resellers.

A group of major software publishers and start-ups who specialize in software distribution via the Internet today released a set of guidelines for how software should be sold and distributed via the Net.

The working group, meeting under the auspices of the Software Publishers Association, issued its recommendations based on several months of discussions for U.S. software publishers who work through distributors and resellers. The Software Publishers Association is not a standards body so the guidelines are not binding for any member, but the recommendations are nevertheless expected to be influential.

The Association's goal is to help more software publishers reduce their distribution costs. Many publishers see electronic distribution as a way to reduce inventory costs, disseminate upgrades quickly, and cut costs in packaging and logistics. Online distribution potentially could create more options for buyers, too, as inventory wouldn?t be limited by physical shelf space in traditional retail stores.

"Leveraging the Internet for software distribution has enormous potential to improve the overall customer experience and create new opportunities for the channel," said Sheryl Barnes, working group member and senior manager of electronic commerce at Lotus Development.

In the area of protecting consumer privacy, the guidelines urge distributors to guard both credit information and demographic or usage data, according to Alexis Tatem, the Association staffer who coordinated the working group.

"We endorse the eTrust policy on informed consent," said Tatem, referring to privacy guidelines being promoted by the Electronic Freedom Foundation. "You have to tell consumers you are collecting data and let them get out of it if they want to."

Charles Jennings, chairman and CEO of Portland Software, said online resellers must also convince buyers that buying online is secure, reliable, and easy.

"By establishing agreed-upon guidelines for our industry, we are now better able to ask the consumer to look at and try out this exciting new way of purchasing software," Jennings said.

For intellectual property protection, Tatem said the guidelines so far suggest similar practices and policies to those used in the "real" world, but will eventually address online practices that aren't clear or where no standard method has emerged.

To date, Microsoft has been the most active software vendor in exploring electronic distribution of software via the Net. In late 1995 and early 1996, Microsoft conducted pilot tests of online software sales via Online Interactive, software.net, and the Internet Shopping Network.

The Association's next project will be subscription and "try-as-you-buy" sales on the Internet and is likely to later add guidelines for direct sales by publishers and international distribution.

The Association's working group members included representatives from BBN Planet, Borland International, Broderbund, Claris, CyberSource, LitleNet, Macromedia, Microsoft, Netscape, Novell, Online Interactive, Open Market, and Silicon Graphics.