Just like a Hollywood blockbuster, E*TRADE's reputation precedes its appearance on your screen. It seems everyone rates it, which is some achievement for a site devoted to investors. After all, aren't they the lamers who do a digital equivalent in the City to watching paint dry all day? Surely, we're in trainspotting territory here? This is essentially true, but there is a difference. Other sites impress because they have pretty graphics, well thought-out designs and an impressive understanding of the HTML/CGI/C++/Java palette to manage the man-machine interface, if you want to put it that way.
But E*TRADE has something else. It's a proper business site - one where you can go to bend the plastic and come back with chunks of stock in America Corp (or just those stocks quoted on NASDAQ). Who wants a wibble with Wally in Wallagong when you can pretend to be, or really be, a Master of the Universe?
Without wanting to descend into the melodramatic, I've seen the future and it works. That's not to say that E*TRADE is a perfectly formed commercial operation. Anything put together by a husband and wife team, with a few friends, in the space of a few months, by a programmer whose sole experience was writing software for children, is going to be something of a kludge. But visiting E*TRADE you understand its potential.
That is its potential though. No doubt about its professionalism, execution is something else. This is state-of-the-art HTML 3.2, complete with multicolumns and who knows how many image GIFs, according to the document source. But what strikes you straightaway is the black and gold livery that clothes the site. This might be a subtle choice of colour combination for a knocking shop, design courtesy of Quentin Tarantino, but for someone with a European eye it jars.
The designers seem to be saying this money-making lark is a serious business so we'd better adopt a funereal colour scheme. Outside of the US, it reads differently; cheap, nasty and artificial. Incidentally, Microsoft uses the same colour scheme as E*TRADE on its investment site (www.investor.msn.com).
Leaving colour aside, the next thing that strikes the viewer, and strikes has almost a literal meaning in this context, are the ads. The US is often portrayed as a nation of sales pitches, and E*TRADE supports that portrayal - it's plastered with ads. And not just ads for things and products. Sizeable chunks of your bandwidth are devoted to celebrations of E*TRADE as an innovative company. "Find out where we're making headlines", and "E*TRADE CEO named one of top 10 visionary CEOs" is highlighted, for example, to reflect the praises it has got from various trade magazines. Again you feel this type of self-indulgence, nay self-abuse, translates uncomfortably across the Atlantic.
THE PROOF IS IN THE PUDDING
Coming through to actual content, then it has to be said that this site, whose home page was last updated on 13 June this year, carries the kind of dog-eared litany that other Web sites tend to put on their sites. Nothing wrong with the site demo, or the whole business of trading, these are clearly core activities. But, sections on press releases and job opportunities?
As said before, it's the actual business of buying and selling shares that is the real magic. Unfortunately, I wasn't able to test out whether I could win or lose, but a quick recce through the forms layout suggests that it's a relatively painless operation. It's also one of the cheapest ways to trade, according to some of the advertising claims on the site launched against competitive products.
E*TRADE is a through-and-through virtual site in that it doesn't have a business operation outside of the Web. That would appear to give it a significant advantage over rivals. It has a minimum charge of $14.95 (#9.50) for a transaction involving 1,500 shares.
ESchwab by contrast, a proper institution with a Wall Street address, has recently branched into Internet share trading and charges $45 (#28) for the same number of shares traded over the Web. That's a competitive advantage which should ensure that the company, which currently claims to have 50,000 active accounts and quarterly revenues of $17 (#10.6) million, grows at a healthy pace.
Target Audience: Small investors
Competitors: EScwhab, ESI in the UK, Microsoft's investor site.
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