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AOL expands with shopping service

In a bid to expand its audience beyond its shrinking subscriber base, Time Warner Inc.'s America Online has introduced an online shopping service available to surfers across the Web.

With InStore, AOL joins a crowded field. Yahoo Inc., Google Inc., Microsoft Corp. and dozens of smaller companies already offer similar services that let shoppers search for products and bargains among many online retailers.

But it highlights AOL's efforts to become a broader Internet portal. Most of AOL is accessible only to the 23.4-million subscribers who pay the company a monthly fee of $4.95 to $23.90.

Reaching out to the Web "is quite a step forward for us," said Bob Hayes, vice president and general manager of AOL's e-commerce group. "We're now playing like the rest of the guys."

That's important for AOL's prospects. Although the Dulles, Va., company posted operating income of $663-million last year on sales of $8.6-billion, it has lost 3.3-million U.S. subscribers since September 2002.

Hayes doesn't expect the shopping service (www.in-store.com) to contribute significantly to AOL's revenue for years. But it could allow the company to reduce its reliance on standard advertising revenue. AOL will charge retailers a fee when InStore visitors click on their products and take a cut of every item sold.

Online shoppers still browse stores

Don't call brick-and-mortar retail stores irrelevant in this age of e-commerce: In a survey, 69 percent of U.S. online shoppers admit to browsing in traditional stores before buying over the Internet.

That's an increase from 53 percent in a similar study in 2000.

Two-thirds of online shoppers say they now buy over the Internet some of the things they used to get in store visits. Yet the percentage getting information or shopping online before visiting a regular store remains steady at 75 percent.

"We do see more and more displacement from retail stores . . . but it's absolutely not the death of the retail store," said Jeff Cole, who directed the study at the University of Southern California's Annenberg Center for the Digital Future.

Americans remain concerned about the privacy of personal information when they shop online, but the intensity of such concerns has decreased. Those "very" or "extremely" concerned decreased, while the "somewhat" concerned group increased.

The study, the fourth in an annual series conducted until this year at UCLA, was based on random telephone interviews with 2,009 households from July to September 2003. It has a margin of sampling error of plus or minus 3 percentage points.

Dual-screen Game Boy ready for holidays

Seeking to head off a challenge from video game rival Sony Corp., Nintendo Co. said that its dual-screen Game Boy player will hit U.S. stores just in time for the crucial holiday shopping season.

Nintendo executives in Japan said the DS, its first new handheld player in three years, will be available in the United States on Nov. 21 with a suggested retail price of $149.99.

That will give the company at least a temporary jump on Sony, whose own handheld game player has been delayed until at least the first quarter of 2005. Though Nintendo's Game Boy franchise dominates the genre, Sony's popular line of PlayStation game consoles provides it with a wealth of game expertise and a ready-made fan base.

Nintendo has sold 170-million Game Boy players since the line was introduced in 1989, according to the company. At least a dozen other portable game devices have been introduced since then, and nearly all have died quickly.

The most recent major challenger was mobile telephone maker Nokia, which introduced its N-Gage portable player in 2003. The company said it had shipped 1-million of the units as of earlier this month.

But Sony's long-awaited PlayStation Portable could prove a formidable opponent.

Scheduled to be available in the United States in March, the PSP will feature a larger screen than those on the DS. Unlike the DS, which is geared exclusively toward games, analysts expect that the PSP will also function as a digital music and video player. Analysts also predict that it will cost as much as $300, about twice the price of the DS.

Adults, teens no longer can adorn stamps

You can still get your baby, your dog, even your prized '65 Mustang on a sheet of postage stamps and immortalize them in letters to your friends.

But plastering your own mug on the 37-cent stamps is off-limits. Same goes for that picture of your teenager you wanted to put on a stamp and attach to graduation announcements.

Stamps.com, the Santa Monica, Calif., company that began offering people the opportunity last month to put pictures of themselves on postage stamps, has suddenly declared photos of adults and teenagers ineligible.

Company officials did not return repeated calls or e-mails asking for an explanation.

It has not gone unnoticed, however, that pranksters at the Web site the Smoking Gun have claimed some success in getting pictures of notorious adults past the company's censors.

The result has been a postage-stamp rogues gallery that has grown to include Unabomber Ted Kaczynski, former Teamsters boss Jimmy Hoffa, Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceausescu, communist spies Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, and ousted Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic. The dress former White House intern Monica Lewinsky made famous also got by, according to the Smoking Gun.

When Stamps.com began offering sheets of 20 stamps for $16.99 last month, its PhotoStamps service banned anything its censors considered political, offensive or pornographic.

Still allowed are images of babies, preteens, pets, landscapes, wildlife, vehicles, and graphics representing businesses or charities.

Device keeps personal data locked away

As the storage capacity of computers has soared, parking data, whether spreadsheets or snapshots, has become less of a problem. But what if the data is for your eyes only?

Micro Solutions says the answer is at the tip of your finger. Its new LockBox, 80- to 200-gigabyte external hard drives, have built-in fingerprint readers.

The LockBox, which is a bit smaller than a VCR tape, has a fingertip-size sensor that its makers say is sophisticated enough to recognize the fingerprints of up to eight people. The sensor is unaffected by changes in the condition or moisture content of the skin. It manages this by using low-power radio frequency electric fields that read fingerprints below the skin.

The LockBox, which can be used intact or partitioned into seven private drives, transfers data over USB 2.0 or USB 1.1 on computers running Microsoft Windows 98 or later. The suggested price for an 80-gigabyte LockBox is $199; the 120- and 200-gigabyte drives are $249 and $299, respectively.

If the LockBox does not open, Micro Solutions offers a 24-hour online emergency unlock service. And the fingerprints? Micro Solutions promises they will stay locked in the box.

Study finds people, Internet inseparable

Researchers investigating how people would react to not having access to the Internet had a tough time getting started. "It was incredibly difficult to recruit participants, as people weren't willing to be without the Internet for two weeks," explained Wenda Harris Millard, chief sales officer of Yahoo and a sponsor of the study.

All participants found living without the Net more difficult than expected, and in some cases impossible, the researchers reported. Nearly half of those in one of the surveys said they couldn't go without the Internet for more than two weeks.

Sending e-mail, looking up phone numbers, getting directions for a trip and checking sports scores online have become a part of daily life. Conifer Research worked with several dozen people who kept a diary of their activities. Regardless of age, income or ethnicity, all said they had withdrawal symptoms and a sense of loss, frustration and "discontentedness."

"The study is indicative of how the Internet has irrevocably changing the daily lives of consumers," Yahoo's Millard said.

Compiled from Times wires.

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