2.15 Internet Prospects

To those who started when ecommerce was in its infancy, the Internet has changed beyond recognition. Most shopping carts work first time, and there is none of the search for software add-ons, the frustration with unhelpful call centers or the battle with incomprehensible manuals. Where the company cannot help with its products there commonly exists a support group, or, as a last resort, Internet searches that find others who have faced and solved exactly the same problem. The Internet is a community, and a community which is growing all the time with more useful sites and portable hardware. But however rapidly the Internet has developed and become part of our lives, {1} it has the potential to change them much further yet. {2}

Dangers

The Internet poses obvious dangers. Online commercial transactions increase the chances of fraud, already considerable, and extend the surveillance powers of the state, {3} commercial and criminal elements. Ready access to information allows immature, unbalanced or vulnerable minds to be exposed to deeply unsocial content, with catastrophic consequences to individual and public safety. {4} {5} Material posted to the Internet is commonly copied round the world in minutes, and what is released is not readily refuted or contained. Indeed, the ease with which material can be cut and pasted may bypass the critical faculty altogether, leaving students unable to summarize arguments effectively, form an independent judgment, or even develop the brain processes essential to adult behavior. {6} Intellectual property is increasingly under attack, and so may be any educational establishment or profession that treats knowledge as a private holding. {7}

Education is ideally placed to benefit from Internet technologies, but many schools in Africa and elsewhere lack a single computer. Business to business Internet technologies have immensely improved manufacturing efficiencies, but have also shut out third parties and placed smaller companies at a grave disadvantage. Technology may indeed create unemployment. {43} Citizens in advanced democracies now have immediate access to their government statements, but many governments have retreated from transparency by invoking state security that only serves to increase voter suspicions and cover up incompetence and the occasional wrongdoing. Finally, there is the dilution of fact as the billions of pages that now make up the world wide web threaten to overwhelm readers with an ever-increasing but difficult-to-assess flood of opinion in all shades of purpose, depth and reliability.

More controversial is the loss of privacy, and the ability of government intelligence to not only access all confidential information but add to, distort or permanently remove it: bank accounts, company information, friendly government strategies. Any digital representation can now be altered without redress, as it is illegal to divulge such 'investigations'. Oversight is perfunctory, and proposed changes largely window dressing. {44}

Collective Intelligence

Though governments often seek to legislate, control and monopolize, {8} the open nature of information on the Internet offers models {9} which may help to offset the increasingly centralized, money-based and sometimes dysfunctional systems of government by which even western democracies operate. The gain is not simply more democratic institutions, but more prosperous societies, with more people contributing to and benefiting from pooled resources. Such digital societies can collaborate better, make more effective teams, and encourage democracy, self-governance, accountable policies, true-cost accounting, and the ethical use of open-source material. Perfectly feasible, for example, are sites where citizens receive independent, weekly updates on matters of public concern (security, armament sales, military operations, clean water developments, bank holdings, etc.), access distance learning material and digital libraries, enjoy a one-to-many conversation with a recognized expert, and find links to impending legislation, conferences and related activist sites. {10} Collective intelligence, far from being a digital mob-rule, or the regimentation of thought behind political manifestos, becomes the cooperation of people who have common experiences, needs and aspirations. Aggregated estimates (like the market) are often surprisingly close to the truth. {11}

Many countries encourage online filing of tax returns, and the use of the Internet for referendums, voting and greater empowerment of the citizen has been contemplated. Though their use is growing {12} electronic voting machines currently suffer from security problems, {13} which online use would likely exacerbate.

Collaborative Efforts

The Internet was always ideally placed for collaborative efforts, {18} but the new social media and other platforms have made online communities much easier to create. Such sites now cover the spectrum, from those like Movellas catering for the 'common reader' to those like AncientLives, which cater for specialists. Indeed there exist sites for most needs, and probably for those not visualized before. {41} Social media has become an important enabling medium for social protest, from Teheran {36} to Occupy Wall Street. {37}

Humanitarian Concerns

Farming information, extended broad-band access and smart phones have the power to relieve the poverty that blights the existence of two thirds of the world's population. {2} Subsistence agriculture can be replaced by biotechnologies that improve crop yields, reduce water, seed and fertilization costs, and minimize dangers from pests, diseases and industrial poisons. Women can be more empowered, and corruption eased as government officials find their salaries improve as farming itself becomes more profitable.

Health

Medicine is changing. For a decade or more, Internet technologies have allowed radiologic images to be distributed throughout a hospital and beyond, {26} but similar technologies now allow the continuous monitoring of the human body in the way that racing car performance is monitored and simulated. {31} eHealth has become a rapidly expanding field, {32} and more physicians are using the Internet to research treatments and further their employment opportunities. {33}

eCommerce

eCommerce is here to stay. Overall US ecommerce revenues were up from US$ 28 billion in 2000 to US$ 166 billion in 2010, and there were marked gains in most sectors. {27} Europe showed even larger gains: to US$162 billion in 2010, and a predicted US$ 203 billion in 2012. {28} The UK digital economy, which accounted for 7.2% of GDP in 2011, was expected to account for 10% by 2015. {34} Growing even more rapidly is the Chinese market, with 2010 Internet sales at US$ 684 billion, 89% percent coming from the B2B sector.

New Technologies

Technology is developing at an ever faster pace and in the pipeline are truly revolutionary possibilities — flexible visual display units, improved batteries, nanotube computers, layered transistors, etc. {14} {42} Whether they become commercial possibilities in ten year or fifty years' time depends less on their inherent value than the appropriate business models being found. Major companies that have invested large sums in research, production and marketing of today's technology will clearly wish to recoup that effort before moving on to something better. Nonetheless, since labor costs are only a small component of electronic goods manufactured in China and India, {39} these more dynamic parts of the world may well come up with innovative technologies if they find ways of penetrating western markets.

Innovation

Innovation requires special people and special outlooks, which are more met in Asia and the west coast of America than in Europe or Africa. Innovation is chaotic, and the likelihood of failure is built into the process — 90% of technology companies set up in Silicon Valley fail within 18 months — but something is learned with each mistake. Companies with products that are easily copied do not survive unless — like Twitter or Facebook — protected by very large investment. {20} All this makes prediction hazardous, perhaps futile, though hardly a technology magazine or resident expert is without a crystal ball. {21} {22} {23} {24} {25} {35} {38} The predictions from Zippy Cart: {40}

Trend

Details and Examples

Co-creation

Customers can customize elements of their purchases.

Examples: Blank Label and Indochino.

Mobile Commerce

Popularity of the iPhone, Blackberry, iPad and other tablets suggests

that customers may now feel comfortable with purchasing

from the small screen.

Social Commerce

Social media sites are increasingly being targeted by emerchants,

and more shopping cart software is offering the ability to set up

a shop within Facebook.

Group Buying

More companies are offering group deals. Examples include

Grupon, LivingSocial, Tippr and Wrazz.

Private Sale Sites

Companies offer customers good deals on top fashion brands,

as part of their free 'membership'. Examples: Eziba and Lulily.

Expansion of Virtual Goods

and Currencies

Facebook offers its own 'currency' and companies are experimenting

with virtual and tangible hybrids. Example: Cheezburger.

Online and Offline Integration

Companies are enticing customers by online presentations of goods

available at local stores.

Video

Automated videos gives customers a fuller idea of the product.

Example: SundaySky.

Customer Service assisted

by Social Media

Companies are increasingly using Twitter and Facebook

to supplement their after sales and problem resolution services.

Push Shopping

Customers pay a subscription to have companies suggest selected purchases

based on tastes, etc. Examples: JewelMint and ShoeDazzle.

Barriers to eCommerce Growth

eCommerce growth is likely to be restrained by:

1. PC saturation: many in the west now own a PC, so that the growth in Internet use will slow in these areas.
2. Inhabitants of two thirds of the world (particularly Africa, central Asia, and war-torn countries) are too poor to purchase a smart phone, let alone a PC. Immediate prospects are often not encouraging.
3. IT infrastructure is poorly developed in countries where more pressing needs exist.
4. Shopping is a social occasion, which the Internet cannot fully duplicate.
5. The Internet increasingly requires outlooks and skill sets that older people find difficult to acquire.

Looking Ahead

Commerce is the great social mixer, promoting travel, respect for others' abilities and understanding of cultural differences. Today the Internet offers extraordinary opportunities, but whether humanity makes best use of them depends less on technology than on the types of societies its better-informed citizens wish to create and belong to. {15} {16}

Questions

1. Are you optimistic or gloomy about the prospects for the Internet? Why?
2. What are the main problems facing the Internet as used today? Suggest improvements.
3. Describe three developments giving grounds for optimism. What business models apply?
4. Provide your own predictions for the Internet, with reasons.

Sources and Further Reading

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