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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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".
(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
(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.
(11) One example is Mercata, set up by Paul Allen, one of the
founders of Microsoft.
(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.
(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,
(19) Margherita: http://www.margherita2000.com/sito_uk/it/digital/digital.htm.
(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,
(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
(24) As an example see the research program on e-market at the
(27) See the research area at the Media Lab on Penny Tags: http://gonzo.media.mit.edu/public/web/sig.php?id=2
(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.