Once users have found helpful information on the Internet, most ask: ?What next?? When you discover that your bank account is overdrawn or the production line is on the blink you want to act on that information.
Robin Bloor, of research firm Butler Bloor, says: ?In the future, a typical manufacturer will operate 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Buyers in one time zone will be able to purchase for offices around the world ? each holding minimum stock but still able to satisfy demand. Business becomes like a continuous Mexican Wave of activity based on the network.?
But the infrastructure to support this electronic commerce is more complex than the simple Web sites installed in the first phase of the commercialisation of the Internet. They are also considerably more expensive.
With even a small application costing about #75,000 for software and development, Internet business is not cheap. But so much is at stake that few users can afford to ignore electronic commerce on the Web. IBM estimates that the Web market will be worth about $1,000bn by the turn of the century.
There are important management issues in running sophisticated Web sites. For example, the need to provide a 24 hours-a-day, seven days a week service, to find skilled development staff and ensure system security.
So, it is not surprising that while the Internet started as a simple set of standards, suppliers are now piling in with products designed to expand the capabilities of Internet servers. A slew of updated browsers, tools and Web design services have flooded the market.
These include Internet development environments, such as Lotus Domino, and middleware products such as IBM?s MQ Series, to smooth the messaging involved in linking databases and core applications with client browsers. The rise of the Windows NT operating system owes much to new Web-based applications which need to be mounted on multi-vendor platforms.
For all of this to work users need standards as ubiquitous as the 13-amp power supply. But we already have ActiveX and Java vying in the programming arena, no clear standards for directory services and new flavours of HTML appearing daily without backwards compatibility. All of this conflicts with standardisation crucial to the successful exploitation of the Internet.
Efforts are being made to nail down some standards. The 100 per cent Java initiative from IBM, Sun Microsystems and Netscape is a step in the right direction. But much more needs to be done if we are to avoid another Unix debacle, with suppliers undermining a standard by introducing their own bells and whistles.
The major advantage of the Internet is the ease with which software can be downloaded to systems. New software can be quickly distributed, allowing users to receive whatever code they need to communicate with others.
However, there is still a long way to go. For example, email is far from seamless. A file produced in one word processor will not translate easily into another, and removing unwanted carriage returns from text is a nightmare.
In the end, what kind of software we use to move from content-only Web sites to those which can handle transactions will be decided by market forces rather than by standards committees. To that extent, at least the customer is king.
John Lamb is contributing editor of Business Computer World.
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