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A Million e-Businesses, Interacting with a Billion People, through a Trillion Interconnected Intelligent Devices …

Roberto SARACCO
Director of Future Centre San Salvador, Telecom Italia LAB

Abstract

After the enthusiasm deriving from the potential of e-Business and Internet as a way to shorten the distance from the producer to the consumer and cluster enterprises we are seeing new trends emerging: much less "pure clicks" and much more "bricks and clicks", new businesses emerging as response to the vanishing of some "rings" in the value chains, a new perception of what really matters to people when buying on-line and on the horizon a new -unprecedented - set of buyers, intelligent agents and objects. We are also seeing an ongoing transformation of the concept of buying itself: more and more we no longer buy, we rent. No longer we are interested in ownership, rather in borrowing (at a price). On the other hand more and more consumers are leveraging the potential of the network to become - from time to time - providers and therefore the legions of copyright marauders confront themselves with ownership sensitive peoples. The paper takes a look at these emerging trends and looks at what technology has in store in the near future as well as the stumbling blocks ahead.


1. Promises, Promises

By the end of the 90s it was pretty clear that e-business, in its various flavours of B2B, B2C, C2C, was the killer application for the coming century. Every single market intelligence agency was forecasting a tremendous growth for e-commerce and venture capitals poured money onto any company-to-be proposing selling on the Internet. Pet-merchandise would make fortunes if sold on the web, groceries were much more appealing if at a click distance, expensive fashion was even more fashionable and generated a global "boo" when on the web, toys were more fun when sold on line and books - at least 'till books will be replaced by bits - could only make sense if acquired from the largest library in the world which was, obviously, on line.

For the 1997 Christmas shopping-season, more than 100 boutiques in nine European countries took a challenge from Microsoft, Hewlett-Packard, Visa, Mastercard, UPS and other companies, to set up the first European "virtual shopping centre." It was called "E-Christmas(1)". The shops provided attractive content, and the technology companies provided a sound platform for e-commerce and for the delivery of the purchased goods. The result, though, was less than satisfactory: out of 184,000 hits on the Web site, only 360 sales were made! The folks in Europe, at least then, used the virtual shopping center to get ideas, and then they went to their local shops to do the actual purchasing.

That might have sounded a warning bell but everybody remained optimistic. Indeed Forrester in 1999 argued that e-business in America was about to reach a threshold from which it would accelerate into 'hyper-growth'. Inter-company trade of goods over the Internet, it forecast, would double every year over the following five years, surging from $43 billion of 1998 to $1.3 trillion in 2003. If the value of services exchanged or booked online were included as well, the figures would be more staggering still. In the couple of years 99-00 we saw a remarkable growth of e-commerce in terms of variety of goods sold, in terms of $ spent for buying those goods. What was also growing, possibly at a higher rate, was the number of companies selling goods and the expenses being made to set up e-warehouses. What weren't growing were . . . the revenues.

During those years we had a lot of data available: the problem was that we looked only to those that were "cool". Indeed, newspapers and televisions thought Internet e-commerce as the epitome for a bright and wealthy future. In 1994 the Internet was mentioned 1833 times by USA newspapers. In 1995 the word Internet appeared 15,940 times, over 27,000 in 1996, over 250,000 times in 1999 (2). Headlines reported (for the USA market) 10 billion Euros spent for e-commerce in 1998 with a forecast of 1,150,000 billion of Euros by 2003. They were also emphasising that by 2005 on-line commerce would reach 5 per cent of the total amount of commerce leading to a creation of 1.8 million new work opportunities.

These data have been reduced today but even if we take that as they were we should consider the reciprocal statement: by 2005 usual commerce will still represent 95 per cent of the total! And those data referred to USA, a market place that was-is accustomed to buying through catalogues.

Now, don't take me wrong. I am not saying e-business and its various incarnations like e-commerce, m-commerce.. . are a fraud or not important, nor I am saying that e-companies are losing money just by being e-companies. Ebay, for one, has reported for the first quarter of 2001 earning of $21.1 million (8 cents a share) vs. $1.8 million (1 cent a share) a year earlier. Revenues in that quarter soared 79 per cent to $154 million.

What I am saying is that those promises in the late nineties have not been fulfilled, that the e-hype has gone. In order to make e-business a success in this decade we better understand what went wrong, whether we have been wrong in expectation or we went wrong in implementation.

 

2. What did not work, what is not working?

In those glorious heyday of misplaced trust and unreasonable hopes the leading idea was that "technology" (internet, network, software) was so nice that it self explained the expectations. However seldom, if ever, is technology the reason for market success. You need technology as an enabler but overestimating technology is always a big mistake in the short term. Similarly it is always a big mistake to underestimate technology in the long run. Internet companies, by and large, made the first type of mistake and they managed -thanks to the press- to take on board the large public. Telecom companies made the second mistake underestimating the impact of technology on their networks (3). The first mistake was both about a misconception of the time it takes to a new technology to succeed, and the belief that such a technology would quite simply move all markets to the Internet. Buyers will become e-buyers and only those companies that would e-sell would prosper (4). Examples abound: the advent of television created a forecast for the disappearance of the radio, the birth of the PC was saluted as the end of the television, the advent of the Internet was taken to herald the disappearance of newspaper (5). Indeed a new technology once it establishes itself (and that takes time) introduces new opportunities and may change some rules. That goes for the new players and for the existing ones who can usually find a way to leverage their assets even better with the new technology. As a result we have seen a coexistence of old business with new ones, The basic point is that a technology may change the way goods are produced, delivered, used, but not the clients' basic needs and values.

In the beginning Internet seemed to provide a low cost entrance into markets. Low set up cost, low physical space cost, no complex distribution chains, easy advertisement of products, ability to reach a global market.. .

That was all true but at the same time it was harbinger trouble. Low entry barriers stimulated many, so many, companies to enter the market. All of a sudden your shop window was on Main Street but it was there with hundreds of other shops selling the same products. You needed to make yourself visible and advertisement cost skyrocketed, competition was fierce and shoppers could compare prices with few clicks (6). Even worse, some sites allowed customers to set the price and then roamed the Internet to offer that price to various on line shops till someone accepted the price (7).

Internet made available a powerful tool to radically change the distribution chain. That was also a problem. Compaq in February 1999 announced a suspension of sales to on line shops for a period of 3 months. It needed to reconsider its strategy and evaluate the impact of those sales on the "brick" retailers (8). Fiat, the Italian carmaker decided to "test" the on-line direct sale by making one car model available only on line, and just that one to avoid any clash with its retailers.

In changing the distribution chain e-shops (those attacking the retailer business) had to provide a very effective delivery of goods. You would not buy on-line if you had to wait several days for the product. In several countries this proved to be a major stumbling block. In the USA, where the buying by catalogue is a well entrenched business, that meant setting up automated warehouses at a cost of million of dollars, thus offsetting the saving deriving from not having a brick shop (9).

There were also many examples of e-selling of products that did not make any sense. They wouldn't have made sense in a brick shop; they didn't on the web either. Some products needed to be launched by professionals to have a market. Books and music make a good example. In the USA it is estimated that 24 million of people would like to write a book or publish a song. The advent of homemade web site opened the door of opportunity to many of them. However the success of a book or of music requires - in general - the use of specific channels controlled by major companies. Publishing a book on the Internet and making a hit has about the same probability as winning the Lottery. Some companies managed to make a little money by charging these authors to be $100 for advertising their masterpiece, much less that what they would have paid to go through an established publisher, but the outcome was in line with the expenditure (10).

Another market segment that benefited from the e-commerce was (still is) the overnight parcel mailing. When Amazon managed to increase its sales by 33 per cent (99 versus 98) UPS delivered 57 per cent more packages and FedEx increased its business by 94 per cent. Once more selling picks, axes and wheelbarrows to miners is more effective than mining.

E-Business seen as a relationship between companies worked out well, although it worked better for the big companies than for the smaller ones.

E-business is not really new. Big companies have been using EDI, Electronic Data Interchange, for at least 20 years. The Internet just made it more widespread and it came in synch with the progressive automation of the purchasing, warehousing, and dispatching processes within the companies. This automation occurred spontaneously in the big companies where the savings justified the investment. It was somewhat forced on the small companies as a pre-requisite to sell to the big ones. In the end, however, everybody benefited from this evolution, big companies became more effective and nimble, small companies grew their market and leaped ahead in the technology evolution.

 

3. Market structure, market segments, players structure

It is now quite clear that e-business is not resulting from moving the usual business to the web. It takes a complete rethinking of the market and of the ways to address it.

Even for B2B you cannot take the usual business "as is" and just change paper forms and phone calls into applications accessing databases and exchanging data. Companies need to reshape individual processes (from inventory to purchasing, from negotiations to support) into a whole business process spanning all of the participating partners. SAP tried to do just that by linking the SAP applications of companies to a global portal, MySAP. Industry sectors like automotive tried a similar approach. Ford Motor, General Motors and DaimlerChrysler set up a new company, Covisint in February 2000 to help automakers cut millions in costs by collaborating with suppliers on line. To fuel the initiatives a (tiny) fraction of their $740 million combined annual spending has been put through the exchange but it looks like it will be some more years before the multimillion dollars savings can be achieved.

Wal-Mart, Intel and Dell have completely moved to B2B their relationships with providers. Intel is using B2B also to connect with their clients (wholesale and large industries) and Dell has based its business success extending it to B2C. These are three examples of very effective use of e-business.

In all these cases we have a traditional buyer-seller relationship transposed to the web. With the exception of the Dell case for the B2C part, all of this could have been carried out (and in effect it was carried out) using EDI. We are in the logic of increasing effectiveness of business processes and cutting cost.

On the other hand Amazon on the B2C side (they also have a B2B side) is trying to exploit the law of increasing returns characterising the network economy. Their clients form a community and benefit from the dimension of the community. The more clients, the more value for each of them. You can ask for information about a book on Amazon.com and get feedback from people who read that book; you can input your own comment. Amazon will provide you with indication on what other books have been bought by people who got the book you are interested in and the extent to which they liked those books. You may also get information on what is being read by people in a certain area (e.g. those livving in your neighbourhood or those having an interest in biotech). This is a great way to create a global market and segment it so that each segment is relevant both to the seller and to the client.

Another way to segment a market is to let customers aggregate themselves. This has been attempted by a number of companies, empowering customers to obtain bulk prices (11). Via the web each customer interested in buying a certain product signs up. After a predetermined period of time, usually a week, the "aggregator" will leverage on the number of clients to get a better deal from the seller.

B2C is leveraging on the diffusion of Internet and the possibility to relate continuously with clients to fulfil the "segment of one" marketing dream. A car insurance company (12) in Texas offers the possibility to subscribe to a contract with a dynamically adjusted price. Your car would be connected to an insurance company monitoring system able to detect where, how, and how much you are driving. Based on this information the company revises the premium on a monthly base.

A first period in e-commerce and related business models is coming to an end. There is a much better understanding in the way Internet can contribute to streamline the buyer-seller relationship. We see companies moving from pure "clicks" to "bricks and clicks", in other words there is a re-evaluation of the power of having a physical location to interface with customers, particularly in the consumer market.

Companies who have succeeded in establishing effective relationships with consumers (that includes both the consumer side -easing the on line showcase of products and services and making it easy to buy them - and the distribution side -optimising inventory, warehouse processes, links to the delivery) are now being used to outsource the e-channel. This is happening with Amazon who has started to sell on behalf of Toy's R Us, Borders (13) and others.

Also, and this is interesting, companies that have a strong foothold on the market, in terms of clients and distribution chain, are starting to consider entering the e-commerce arena offering their "platform". That is the case for Kamps A.G., the largest German bakery that is distributing bagels and rolls every morning to 2200 baker shops from its 60 centralised bakeries. The setting up of a B2B e-business to collect orders was considered but not implemented. Trucks delivering the bread are taking back orders for the next day. Moving to e-mail would not improve the process. Kamps is planning to acquire 40 per cent of GrowNex A.G., an Internet company specialising in e-food. What they bring to GrowNex is their trucks' fleet of 3000 units that are sitting idle for most of the day and that can be used to deliver other goods. Seat, on the other hand, is teaming with TIN, the largest Internet provider in Italy, putting together their capacity to reach thousands of individual business with the e-skill of TIN. It is but another nuance of the interest in "clicks and bricks".

Companies playing in the e-business support are taking up some more definite shapes going by the names of vertical market places (14), horizontal marketplaces (15), catalogue aggregators (16), auctions (17), exchanges (18). Some vertical marketplaces are transforming themselves into communities. What differentiates them from the original vertical marketplace is the existence of additional services (for free) dedicated to the community, like news, job listings, or chats.. .

Marketplaces are seeing the aggregation of a number of different players: buyers and sellers, of course, but also e-marketplace operators aka intermediaries or market makers, platform providers, edge services providers, traditional system integrators and web integrators, ASP.

The whole value chain in the B2B is structured in carriers, hosting providers, security vendors, technology platforms, applications vendors, content providers and trading communities. It goes beyond the purpose of this paper to go into details. The point is to show that a new complexity is arising from the first unstructured phase of e-business, which resides in the interaction among the various players in the chain and the selection decision to be made by each one in choosing their partners along the chain. On the other hand each company, by focusing on a single aspect, can better follow the evolution of technology, provide economy of scale and competitive solutions to companies at different levels in the value chain.

 

4. Complement or substitute?

The observations made in the previous section clearly point to the fact that, at least for some more years, e-Business will complement the usual business. E-Business is attractive for two main reasons: have a more efficient way to do business and overcome geographical barriers. Depending on the specific business segment these two reasons may be stronger or weaker. As just mentioned, in the case of the Bakery business moving to the "e" does not provide any significant advantages on both points. It is unlikely to see it taking off under its own weight. However, in this business as in others having similar characteristics, we may suppose that in the longer term it will happen because of the spreading of the e-culture in that area due to different reasons. There is no particular reason for using a washing machine to receive e-mails: however there are some strong motivations to connect a washing machine to the Internet to allow a transformation of the business model from a "selling" paradigm to a "renting" paradigm. Ariston has put on the market a new line of washing machines" that requires the customer to pay an installation fee (less than a hundred dollars) and a price for each washing (one Euro, less than a dollar, including the cost of the electrical power). Maintenance is included in the price and the machine connects to the provider, via Internet, to signal washings and any anomalies that may be detected. That is the reason to have e-mail facilities on the washing machine. At that point if the customer wants to use the machine to send/receive e-mails he is welcome to do so. Ariston is partnering with a telecom provider who sees in this business model an opportunity to penetrate the telephone market from the "back door" (actually the "laundry door").

VOD has been the hype of the early 90s and pushed experimentation of broadband infrastructure. It did not happen because the cost was too high for the market to absorb and the competition from videocassette. Today we are seeing two major changes: the infrastructure is providing more bandwidth every day (actually the evolution of fibre technology is providing more bandwidth than needed!) and the cost of memory storage has dropped dramatically. This means that in a few years (less than two) we will be able to download a movie on our video recorder (sort of. ..) and watch it when we like it. The transformation of a streaming video channel into a file download helps in dramatically reducing the cost. At that point Blockbuster will need to find a new business (and actually they have already started to reposition themselves and to lobby with the movie majors). Buying movies on-line will become the way to go.

The point is, as the infrastructure becomes more powerful -and cheaper- and many more things and people move to the Internet so will the businesses.

Hence, in the long term probably many market sectors will see a total displacement of current business practices in favour of the e-business. In the short medium term, however, it is safe to assume that business, in several areas, will go on as usual with the e-part used as a complement. This is important both in evaluating business plan of e-companies and in deciding what type of services should be used to enter the on-line world. It should also be noted that e-stuff in some cases may just go along with the atom-stuff. In the USA there are more people reading e-newspapers than the paper thing but still there has been no decrease in the number of paper copies sold (20)

Some specific areas, on the other hand, are already experiencing a significant switch to e-commerce. Theatre tickets (21) will rapidly be available on-line only, airline tickets are following the same path under the pressure of airline companies to cut cost.

M-commerce can leverage from the existence of a need to get things when people are on the move and out of touch from a convenient shop. That is not going to substitute the usual way to buy goods but as it spreads people will learn to appreciate the convenience of avoiding queues at a cashier line and may start to use it also when they are no longer "on the move". This may have a particular impact in a number of European countries where the cell phone is widespread but the e-culture is not.

At the same time companies will need to shape their processes to satisfy m-commerce demands and that will push them to provide incentives to people to always use e-commerce, the same way that today banks usually charge a fee for money cashing from a teller whilst it is free at an ATM.

Bricks companies are trying to exploit the Internet to get more customers and use technologies to display on the web their actual shelves in the shop. People can peruse merchandise 22, and even get a feeling of the texture. Then they can go to the shop or e-buy.

 

5. Good News...

If I have sounded critical or disillusioned about the e-business you got me wrong. I believe there are tremendous opportunities in the near future both in terms of cost savings and market reach (good for the sellers), price reductions and broader choices (good for the buyers) and emergence of new services (good for both).

What has the future in store? We will see a new market emerging: services bundled in appliances. I mentioned the example of the washing machine. Consider this scenario: car production is making more and more use of electronics. To cut costs, engines are likely to be produced in fewer models. When you buy a car you get to choose the power of the engine and that results in software being downloaded on the engine control. If you pay more you get software that extracts more "horses" from the engine, pay less and you get less. Well, suppose that you bought a car fitting your driving style but there comes a day when you need to pull a heavy trailer on a vacation. You would like to have more "horses" available and matter of fact you can e-shop for those extra horses. A call from your car and you download new software for your engine that for the next 10 days (and for a daily price) will get you what you need (23). All of a sudden your car manufacturer is both selling products and services. And your car has joined the league of on line buyers.

The wealth of information easily interchangeable may bring forward issues of privacy. Suppose you have a certain ailment. You may not wish other people to know that; on the other hand you would like to share this information with people who have the same ailment to get their experience. How can this be done? On the horizon we are seeing intelligent agents that can work on our behalf, talking to our agents at a level that is hidden to both you and other people. It is an agents' conversation. Once the agents have agreed they recognise a mutual benefit the information percolates to the "human" level and you will be aware of the results of their endeavour. This is not new at all. It is exactly what happens in our brains. Inner levels process millions of bits of information and let surface, to our perception and awareness, only a few. This is interesting for the e-business. Agents can roam the e-market on our behalf and scout for good deals in a completely anonymous way. Agents can be trained to be "daring" or "cautious" in their behaviour. There is some interesting research going on in this area at several universities (24).

Agents may be difficult to trust, at least initially, but if they are restricted to operate within a budget of few dollars (or less), probably we would be willing to accept their services. Imagine an agent looking for some pictures and negotiating a price up to a few cents. Or trying to get a sentence you are typing translated by some web application. The Internet has been considered to be a basket of free content. It is difficult to change people's mind but it may be feasible to move from the free (which is something that needs to be done if you want to have viable business models) to something that is so cheap to be perceived as almost free.

Applications like Mojo (25), allow just that. Associate a minuscule price to any information that is being exchanged. This may stimulate a completely new market place for the e-business. This market is based on prices that are so low (26) that it would not be possible in a classical market since the transaction cost would be higher than the value of the goods being exchanged.

The progressive dissemination of tagging (27) is also opening up new frontiers for the e-business. We are already seeing some cell phones with the capability to read tags (28) (bar codes). Call a web site with the phone and that tag will provide you information on the product, on other nearby shops where you can get it and its price (29), or you can e-buy it and have it sent home. That's interesting. People like to go shopping, roam shelves and touch things. It is unlikely that they like to stand in a queue at the cashier nor to carry boxes around before getting home. What if you just e-buy things in the shop and have them sent to your home? Your cellular phone can do the trick as I have just mentioned.

You are in your car listening to a radio station when you get enticed by a new song, you don't even know the song's name. Wouldn't be nice to order the song there and then by pressing a button on your car or again using your phone keying in the radio station you are listening to and get the song? Once bought the song can be downloaded to your MP3 recorder in the car or even in the memory of your cell phone (30). This is already possible in some areas in the USA and it will spread. Impulse buying can be a tremendous driver for e-business (particularly in its m-commerce variety).

I hope to have provided some grounds for being optimistic about the future, a future where e-business will prosper not necessarily at the expenses of existing markets but in parallel, stimulating market growth. This extended global market will include a million e-businesses, involving a billion people, teeming with a trillion of interconnected intelligent devices.

Companies and individuals should creatively work in preparing for that e-business offering, and I stress the "creative" part. E-business is about something new; it is not a new dress for an old "catwalk".

 

6. Notes

(1) http://www.e-christmas.com
(2) I do not have the figure for the year 2000. A journalist who searched newspapers' databases to analyse how the press reacted to the Internet phenomenon in the USA assembled these numbers.
(3) This 'mistake" would require a bit of discussion and this paper is not the appropriate place for that.
(4) Intel's CEO declared in 1999 that by 2005 we would no longer be talking about e-companies vs. normal companies because only e-companies will be the only ones on the market.
(5) There is plenty of data, from the booming in numbers of radios to the multiplication of newspapers and magazines. Possibly one single data may be significant: the increase in sale of office printing paper. In spite of all the talk on the paperless office there is a great business in selling paper to offices. http://www.nytimes.com/2001/04/21/technology/21PAPE.html
(6) Actually one click was generally enough since some web site offered comparison of offers. http://www.soon.org.uk/info/price.htm
(7) http://www.priceline.com/
(8) http://www.wired.com/news/news/email/explode-infobeat/business/story/1808.html
(9) Web Van, www.webvan.com, had to invest $2 billion for each automated warehouse it needed to ensure a quick distribution of groceries. That investment required a tremendous volume of orders in order to pay out. They had many orders, thousands a day, but that was not enough.
(10) http://www.wired.com/news/culture/0,1284,35722,00.html?tw=wn20000422
(11) One example is Mercata, set up by Paul Allen, one of the founders of Microsoft.
http://www.mercata.com/cgi-bin/mercata/vl/pages/home.jsp
(12) Progressive Insurance. The monitoring is based on a GPS receiver installed in the car that feeds data on location, time and speed to a hard drive. This information is uploaded to the insurance company monitoring system on a weekly base.
http://www1.progressive.com/media_relations/2nd_patent.htm
(13) Borders had its own web site for e-commerce. Recently they announced to move operations to Amazon who sold $US1.7 billion worth of books in year 2000. Borders sold $27 millions of books.
www.nytimes.com/2001/04/1 l/technology/l lBOOK.html
(14) Examples are: in telecommunications www.Band-Xcom, in automotive www.Worldparts.com, chemistry www.Chemdex.com, constructions www.Buildnet.com, health care www.medpool.com, groceries www.gofish.com…
(15) Examples are: media buying www.onemediaplace.com, business travel wwwconcur.com, human resources www.employease.com
(16) Examples are www.SciQuest.com, www.Ariba.com, …
(17) Examples are www.agorum.com, www.printmountain.com,
(18) Examples are www.altraenergy.com, www.paperexchange.com, www.comDAQ.net
(19) Margherita: http://www.margherita2000.com/sito_uk/it/digital/digital.htm.
(20) http://www.wired.com/news/reuters/0,l349,33057,00.html?tw=wn19991214
(21) 12,000 theatres in the USA are getting ready for the transition. Customers can make the reservation on line, buy the ticket and print it on their printer. http://www.pcworld.com/cgi-bin/pcwtoday?ID=l5648, http://www.movietickets.com/
(22) Perceptual Robotics is offering these kinds of technologies. www.galleryfurniture.com A "grimmer" example is that of Stewart Enterprises, one of the major funeral houses in the US, which has started to sell e-participation to a funeral to allow relatives to join in the ceremony from distant places via Internet. Obviously this is not going to replace the "core" business. http://www.fergersonfuneralhome.com/, http://www.economist.com/editorial/freeforall/current/index_wb3492.html
(23) http://www.livedevices.com/
http://www.wired.com/news/technology/0,1282,42104,00.html?tw=wn200l0305
(24) As an example see the research program on e-market at the Media Lab:
http://gonzo.media.mit.edu/public/web/sig.php?id=7
(25) http://www.mojonation.net/
(26) http://www.wired.com/news/technology/0,l282,37892,00.html?tw=wn20000801
(27) See the research area at the Media Lab on Penny Tags: http://gonzo.media.mit.edu/public/web/sig.php?id=2
(28) http://www.pcworld.com/cgi-bin/pcwtoday?ID=l7205
(29) http://www.digitalrum.com/home.html
(30) Intel has announced the development of a cell phone chip able to store up to 1 Gigabyte of information. You may keep a few hours of music on that kind of memory.