The pace of change and development prompted by the onset of Internet technology has been staggering over the past two or three years. Who in 1997 could have accurately envisaged the extent of the current e-business saturation? This being the case, pity the person who has to predict the state of the e-economy a decade from now.
David Targett, Professor of Information Management at the Imperial College Management School, has spent the last eight months gathering evidence from over 100 business people, companies and experts in an attempt to form some kind of idea of where the UK will be e-commerce-wise in 10 years' time. This was in his capacity as special adviser to a House of Lords committee on e-commerce.
"As the Government pushes forward with its plans to make the UK a leading centre for e-commerce, it is vital that we try to forecast potential outcomes of the e-revolution," he says. "Generally, the potential of new technologies has not always been recognised. Alexander Bell's invention of the telephone was initially seen as a medium through which people could listen to concert music remotely - the realisation of its true potential came much later."
Targett's work has lead him to foresee three distinct potential scenarios by 2010.
This is a scenario where business-to-business e-commerce has virtually no take up as concerns about security stall any development. The Internet stays within the realm of the consumer and remains a tool that people use for study and entertainment. Targett has labelled this model the Gold Rush because, similar to the Californian situation in 1849 when prospectors rushed westwards in their thousands, hoping for instant wealth, it was the businessmen who sold picks and shovels, who made the real money. In the Internet age, the shovel merchants are companies such as Cisco, which has made a fortune through its networking technology.
In Targett's second vision for the Internet, there is a lot of individual use of the Internet in the B2B sector. E-marketplaces, e-procurement and e-supply chains all play their part in drastically reducing transaction costs and speeding up the sharing of information. We will also see the rise of the e-contract.
Business-to-consumer and consumer-to-consumer does not really take off as again concerns about security and the submission of credit card details remains a major obstacle. Targett has cheekily called this state of the nation "New Labour" because as he says, "We see a lot of talk but not enough action."
Second Industrial Age
This is where the Internet permeates society. Security issues are overcome and the UK feels confident about embracing e-commerce en masse. Fifty per cent of B2B activity is done via the Internet while 40% of B2C business is completed online.
Just as 19th century inventions like the Spinning Jenny and the steam engine transformed society from a rural-based cottage economy to an urban industrial landscape - the Internet has just as drastic effect. People will travel less, do things electronically and goods are delivered in white vans.
"We can't realistically prepare for the future without forecasting," Targett concludes. "The next step will be to formulate contingency plans for each scenario. As time passes, and e-commerce unfolds, we will be able to draw on this information."
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This was first published in October 2000