Looking for the bottom line

You’ve heard it all by now. The Internet is supposed to change the way we shop, interact and even the way we think. Kiss the “old economy” goodbye, vendors and other proponents say, and get ready to usher in the new, Web-based capitalism.

In short, get on board, or get brushed aside.

But history is full of such proclamations of social revolution stemming from new technology, very few of which unfolded as predicted. Whether the Web and e-commerce actually represents a fundamental change to society, or is really nothing more than a nifty new tool – something more akin to the microwave – remains to be seen.

To try and divine where e-commerce is taking us, ComputerWorld Canada asked five Canadians involved in the Internet industry, including an academic, a vendor, the head of a Web start-up company, a major user and the head of an on-line community, what changes we can expect as a result of Web-based commerce, and ultimately, how big those changes will be.

Tom Keenan, professor in the Department of Computer Science and dean of the Faculty of Continuing Education at the University of Calgary

Keenan, who has lived and worked in Thailand, said Web-based commerce will lead to “the globalization of Canadians’ minds.

“It’s going to mean that the Canadian thing where you go into The Bay and an item says $49.95 plus tax, and that’s what you pay, is moving toward much more of an Asian model, which is, ‘What do you want to pay?'” Keenan said.

Shoppers – though probably only those with the means and the wherewithal, he adds – will take to new forms of buying in an effort to find the best value. Models like group purchases, or buying items in conjunction with a group of anonymous people via the Web, or auctions, will mean that those who want a bargain will always find it.

He expects on-line shopping will be of greatest value to Canadians who live in remote areas, and who don’t have access to the variety of goods that those who live in cities do.

Keenan plays down the revolutionary aspects of e-commerce, though he says some of the changes will be sweeping. “I think it’s pretty fundamental if you include all the kinds of information you can buy,” he said. But he warns that on-line shopping is not without its downsides.

“A lot of the things that I want to buy have been too expensive, or too difficult to get, but that I’m now buying in an altered form,” he said, referring to his on-line subscription to the Wall Street Journal. And having more things to buy means spending more money, Keenan said.

Jennifer Evans, director of Toronto Webgrrls

Evans oversees Toronto Webgrrls, that city’s chapter of the on-line community for women that currently boasts more than 1,600 members. She says e-commerce has already widened the distance between institutions and customers. But whether that will have a positive or negative impact has yet to be seen.

“One of the first places we’ve seen this is in the banking world,” Evans said. “I think it benefits both; I think it makes it harder for customers to do simple things, things we took for granted in the past. But the range of service you can get makes it easier to do other things.”

As to whether the Web is a truly global phenomenon, Evans said the obvious advantages of the world’s developed nations is offset by the fact that the Web has the capacity to be used anywhere.

“You can be in Turkmenistan and buy something from Amazon.com. Whether or not it exists isn’t the issue, the fact is the capacity is there for it to be there.”

Tom Vassos, author, MBA program instructor at the University of Toronto and senior e-business advisor for IBM Canada Ltd.

Vassos said the growing popularity of e-commerce is ushering in a new age when the balance of power between buyer and seller falls to the latter. The ease of comparison shopping, the popularity of auctions, group buying and even micro-purchases -the buying of pieces of a product or information at a reduced price, is contributing to the phenomenon.

“If you were to ask me what the future is in terms of some of these models, it’s certainly not going to be one winning out over the other, rather, you’ll see a combination of all of them,” Vassos said.

He doesn’t expect that Web shopping will ever catch on with the mass population – rather, he envisions a world where those who routinely buy products that lend themselves to the Web, especially software, move entirely on-line. “But as people see what bargains others are getting, they’ll try. Price will move them in that direction.” Vassos said.

The widening gap between the “knows and the know-nots,” however, does concern Vassos. And though there are no easy answers, he said the plummeting prices of PCs, even the onset of free PCs in return for pre-set ISP service, may help.

Phuoc Ho, president of payANYbill.com

One of the legions of Internet start-ups that have taken the financial world by storm, Toronto-based PayANYbill.com offers Web surfers a bill presentment and payment service. Ho said the advent of the Internet and e-commerce has allowed companies like his to not only get started, but also to compete with well-established, powerful competitors – in the case of payANYbill, the major banks.

“It levels the playing field,” Ho said. “Companies like payANYbill.com provide services that traditionally only Canada Post and the banks could provide. So in that sense, it’s a big, big change.”

Ho believes the mass adoption of e-commerce is inevitable – the sheer convenience and ease of clicking a mouse as opposed to driving somewhere is too inviting to pass up, he said.

“If you take the TV, it took 20 years to get TVs into every single household. But with the Internet, you get an order of magnitude greater in terms of adoption. At the end of the day, in five years when you look back, you will see it like the microwave oven – ‘What did I ever do without the microwave?'”

Bill Robertson, general manager of electronic commerce, Canada Post

Robertson, who’s helping to oversee the launch of Canada Post’s Electronic Post Office initiative, predicts big changes as a result of e-commerce, and he doesn’t come by that opinion lightly. “In the last 18 months I’ve personally met with 75 or 80 of the largest businesses in Canada, and every one of them is evaluating how the Internet is going to change their business,” he said.

“There’s not a senior executive I talked to that does not expect that the Internet poses a threat to them, forcing them to re-invent their business in some way.”

On the business side, Robertson says the Web is letting small companies with five people compete with large corporations. On a more personal side, the Web is helping people who previously felt isolated meet with others who share their beliefs, interests or troubles.

Though he admits the Web is still largely the realm of the young and the technically-savvy, he says as the Internet breaks free of the PC, adoption rates will soar.

“The thing that’s going to drive that, in my view, is the proliferation of devices. Today we focus on the PC, but there’s devices coming along that will let you access information and do other things, whether it’s a wireless PDA, a digital PCS phone or a touch screen,” Robertson said.