A year in e-business

If it is true that a week is a long time in politics, then a year in e-business must be an eternity. Over the past 12 months, Computer Weekly has tracked every twist and turn of the e-business story to provide you with all the e-news and e-views you could need

If it is true that a week is a long time in politics, then a year in e-business must be an eternity. Over the past 12 months, Computer Weekly has tracked every twist and turn of the e-business story to provide you with all the e-news and e-views you could need.

Change was in the air, late last October. Writing in the new-look Computer Weekly, the prime minister, Tony Blair, outlined his vision of recreating the UK as an e-commerce superpower. Clearly in gauntlet-throwing mood, Blair urged IT directors to lead their businesses in the adoption of e-commerce. "If your business doesn't see the Internet as an opportunity, it will be a threat," he wrote.

The Computer Weekly Big Question survey the same week emphasised just how crucial this lead would be. A quarter of the IT directors polled were not confident that the directors of their companies understood the implications of e-commerce. "Money is thrown in the wrong directions and too much is wanted too soon," said one.

Meanwhile, the industry's love affair with the acronym introduced the EIP, or enterprise information portal, to IT parlance. There was no pulling the wool over the eyes of our e-business editor, who quickly recognised it as "intranets done properly". Another acronym, Wap, turned out to be the darling of the Telecom 99 show in Geneva. What use is Wap? asked our report, by no means the last time this question would be posed in the IT press over the coming months.

November 1999

The number of IT jobs advertised in the UK press continued to fall steeply in the run-up to Y2K. But there were signs that a post-millennium e-commerce skills crisis might be around the corner. Warnings came thick and fast that IT chiefs would ignore e-commerce staffing at their peril. For their part, the chiefs were beginning to realise that e-enablement required immediate action. "Ready, fire, aim" was the advice of one columnist. E-commerce was on everyone's lips. BA set itself the goal of gaining 50% of revenue online within four years. The WTO was debating e-commerce tax. There was even a royal mention in the Queen's speech to Parliament.

In Cannes, analysts at the Gartner Group Symposium were predicting a "trough of disillusionment" for e-business in the new millennium, followed by a "slope of enlightenment" and a "plateau of profitability". Don't hold your breath though - delegates were told they could expect the plateau in 2008.

Across the other side of the world the new e-envoy Alex Allan was talking a good fight at the World E-Com event in Perth. Discussing UK government objectives for electronic commerce he said, "I will have to have a good look at those targets and see if they are demanding enough." Had he known the struggles in store, he might have opted to remain as British High Commissioner in Australia and bat away more straightforward issues such as East Timor and the Commonwealth.

The cuddly, dependable e-mail bared its fangs this month. A maverick employee at a recruitment consultancy spammed rival firms with an unauthorised message implying their employers were "unprofessional, unethical, money-mad, short-term chancers who would shaft anyone for a quick buck". Clearly, this was a company in need of an e-mail policy.

December 1999

There was only one thought foremost in the mind of the IT professional in the final month of the millennium. But while IT departments struggled to defend themselves against the Millennium Bug, for the rest of the world Christmas shopping was a far greater cause for concern. As seasonal spending gathered momentum, workers at one Internet banking set-up were left with Egg on their faces when security flaws came to light on its online credit card service. A week later came the warnings that financial firms were in danger of compromising security in the rush to make their products available on the Web. "If you push plans quickly then some errors will occur," warned one consultant. Meanwhile, Imperial College had rather more than just Christmas shopping in mind when it heralded prospective savings of £8m a year through its e-procurement initiative.

Elsewhere there was a warning that the skills crisis was set to take a more sinister turn, as Internet start-ups began combing IT departments for staff with e-commerce skills. Another piece of IT jargon, "headhunt.com", was coined to describe the trend.

As the party season got into full swing, up in north London the First Tuesday Christmas shindig drew the usual bunch of wannabes and neverwillbes. One partygoer unwittingly anticipated the dotcom shake-out around the corner by dismissing the event as "bullsh***ers talking to bullsh***ers".

January 2000

Happy New Year? Busy new year, more like. With the Y2K bug slain, the first year of the third millennium promised to be "the year of no excuses for bricks-and-mortar firms". E-business surveys and reports banked like driven snow against the Computer Weekly in-tray, warning of the pitfalls and shortfalls of Web security, online payment and order fulfilment. As if to prove the point, a hacker attack on Virgin Net saw 170,000 customers temporarily lose their e-mail service. Consumer confidence was on everyone's lips.

In our Management pages we predicted that the chief executive would be the first in the IT director's office, "wondering what we're doing about this e-business thing that was in the papers all through Christmas". Close on the CEO's heels would be the personnel manager, and the security manager, andÉ

Two IT legends were in the news in January. Bill Gates announced his decision to step down as Microsoft chief executive, in favour of the role of chief software architect. And Kevin Mitnick, the world's most infamous computer hacker, was released after almost five years' incarceration. The announcement from the office of Home Secretary Jack Straw of a UK cyber crime unit to prevent hacking and Internet fraud and pornography could not have been more timely. There was also news of a rising star in the IT firmament. Allan flew in from Australia to take up the post of e-envoy, and immediately backed calls to give users a stronger voice in the development of e-business standards and best practice. Columnist Simon Moores optimistically re-labelled him the "master of change".

By now, the ASP model was claiming as many column inches as Posh and Becks were in Hello! We also caught the first whisperings of the B2B marketplaces, though for the moment they were snappily labelled "vortals". Squeezed in between all the articles debating the mooted AOL-Time Warner merger, a news story reported that Beyond.com had axed 75 jobs and sacked its CEO. The shape of things to come, perhaps?

February 2000

The SSP survey of salary and skills told us what everyone already knew. While the IT recruitment market had continued to drop in the run-up to the millennium, Internet, HTML and Java skills had bucked the trend in the last quarter of 1999. The Computer Weekly Big Question revealed that 82% of IT managers questioned believed that a skills drought would hold up e-commerce projects. It wasn't just young programmers looking to brush up their Web skills. GE implemented a mentoring project to e-enable its 50-something executives, among them CEO Jack Welch.

Meanwhile, the Computer Weekly/KEW Associates IT expenditure survey highlighted strong growth in expenditure related to the Internet. Pity the poor SME, though. For all the e-hype, a Computer Weekly roundtable discovered that UK SMEs had neither the time nor the resources to explore fully the possibilities that e-business opened, and that impartial advice was crucial but lacking.

The Regulation of Investigatory Powers (RIP) Bill reared its head. The Institute for the Management of Information Systems implored departments to clean up their security policies as soon as possible. The Bill, which included the controversial decryption measures previously dropped from the Electronic Communications Bill, was just one of many items of legislation threatening to clutter the agenda of e-commerce-focused IT directors.

The growth of e-marketplaces gathered pace. Ford announced savings of over $10m (£6m) in its first full use of Auto-Xchange. But there was no hanging a price on the rewards that Chris West reaped online. West described his experiences of online dating in our Valentine's Day special issue.

"There are some people that you just click with instantly and it's the same on e-mail. Yvette e-mailed me and we got on straight away. Soon we were e-mailing each other every day and then she plucked up the courage to phone. We eventually met and that was that." Cue references galore to e-ros, god of online love

March 2000

Computer Weekly set out its e-business stall in March with the announcement of the Computer Weekly E-Business Excellence Awards and the soft launch of Computer Weekly E-Business Review. A week later came a free unified messaging service for Computer Weekly readers. BT seemed rather less interested in furthering the cause of UK e-business. Its delay of ADSL roll-out for a further three months was perceived by readers as a set-back for the uptake of e-business in the UK.

In the month in which the Opposition leader William Hague declared that e-commerce and IT would be at the heart of the next general election campaign, residents of Arizona, US, put e-government into practice. An impressive 43% of the 80,000 who voted in the Arizona presidential primary did so online. In excluding the Society of InformationTechnology Management (Socitm) from policy development for the Government's consultation document, E-citizen, e-business, e-government, the Cabinet Office seemed rather less enlightened in comparison. Moreover, there was a muted response to the e-commerce breaks in chancellor Gordon Brown's budget. And e-commerce minister Patricia Hewitt's announcement that the Government was to spend £15m to confront cybercrime and Internet hackers paled into insignificance compared to the $2bn security project launched by the US president, Bill Clinton.

Elsewhere, Selfridges unveiled ambitious plans to roll out an Internet-based e-procurement system; Waitrose became the first British retailer to go live with a service allowing customers to order goods from their mobile phones; and insurance group Cornhill announced that it was prepared to use disciplinary measures to prevent its corporate e-mail systems being used as a vehicle for disseminating non business-related material.

April 2000

Early April brought sobering news for the UK's IT directorate. The DTI-commissioned Information Security Breaches Survey 2000 revealed that 60% of companies surveyed claimed to have suffered a security breach in the previous two years, and that only 14% had a security policy in place.

The result confirmed that the rush to the Internet was opening UK firms to increased risk, with an alarming 70% of firms with Internet access having suffered breaches.

One person for whom data access was clearly not an issue was European Commission president Romano Prodi. Prodi took open government to its logical conclusion when he fulfilled a promise to publish his mail on the Web. After scanning Prodi's in-tray, our yawning reporter adjudged the daily grind of the EC supremo as "far from being a nailbiting life of intrigue".

At least the stock market turbulence that rocked the dotcom world later in the month raised the prospect of an increase in the number of skilled IT people back on the jobs market.

Dotcoms that a month before had seemed unassailable were left looking like April fools as the inevitable market rationalisation kicked in, and none more so than Lastminute. com, whose flotation was a debacle.

May 2000

If April's scare stories hadn't forced IT directors to sit up and think about security, the Love Bug virus certainly did. The virus was one of the most damaging in the history of the Internet, costing users an estimated $10bn worldwide, and demanded that users paid more attention to corporate e-mail policies. A week later, officials from the G8 group of advanced industrialised countries met in Paris to agree ways of tackling online crime.

Readers gave the broadband mobile Internet a thumbs-up. More than half of those canvassed said they planned to use broadband data services in the next three years. Yet despite Thistle Hotels' launch of a Wap reservation service, the Wap backlash kicked in. "Never in the field of technology conflict can so much have been promised to so many and so little been delivered," opined our e-business editor.

Meanwhile, it emerged that UK users were starting to move their IT processing operations abroad to avoid the implications of the proposed RIP Bill. The Government responded by insisting that it had no intention of "imposing unreasonable burdens on industry".

The SSP/Computer Weekly survey of salary and skills highlighted a deepening e-skills crisis. It revealed that demand for HTML skills in Q1 2000 was 139% greater than in the Q1 1999. The situation called for desperate measures - e-commerce systems supplier Entranet, for instance, offered a £50,000 bounty for anyone able to find it a team of ten Java programmers.

Elsewhere in the news pages, the failure of online sports fashion retailer Boo.com made it Europe's biggest Internet casualty to date. Investors finally pulled the plug after giving the firm £100m leeway. Over at Compaq HQ, Web site content management processes needed a re-think after the company erroneously advertised PCs for sale online at just £1 each. And news came that Icann, the organisation that monitors Internet names and numbers, was under investigation by the General Accounting Office, the independent investigative arm of Congress.

June 2000

June kicked off with the release of a survey by NOP Research stating that a risible 3% of British firms had a formal e-commerce strategy. Not all of the survey's statistics made such depressing reading. The impression was of UK.co.uk as a headless chicken; moving, yes, but not quite sure where to, or why. IBM was also touting a research paper. It claimed that e-business would benefit from women's strengths. "E-business is shifting IT to be very personal in nature. It's increasingly about people so it's well suited to women," claimed the paper's author, without so much as a hint of irony.

By mid-month, the furore around the RIP Bill was reaching fever pitch. With the Bill set to go into its final stages in the Lords, IT directors were facing the prospect of choosing between breaking the law or breaking commercial confidentiality. Opposition peers said this Web-tapping legislation would undermine confidence in e-commerce in the UK. One IT watcher said, "It is now abundantlyclear that the Government is making this Bill up as it goes along." In time, the Government was forced to climb down over the Bill's more contentious proposals. Still, no one was surprised when a Computer Weekly Big Question poll revealed that 83% of IT managers thought the Labour Government had no grasp of how important e-business is to the UK economy.

The Abbey National's stand-alone Web bank, Cahoot, suffered a disastrous launch, with the Web site out of action for two days. Timofonica, the first computer virus to target mobile phones, was seen in the wild in Spain. And, as news that the poultry products supplier Bernard Matthews was investing in an online order information service, spell checkers throughout the IT press queried the word 'bootiful'.

July 2000

The arrival of the holiday season did little to disperse the storm clouds hovering over public sector IT. EDS, the Inland Revenue's IT outsourcer, abandoned plans to introduce downloadable income tax software in the current tax year. A BT report on public-sector readiness to deliver services electronically revealed that only a quarter of people in the health and local government sectors felt the Government would reach its target of delivering all services electronically by 2005.

Crypto specialists were still picking holes in RIP. They were not alone. "I support the Government's introduction of the RIP Bill," wrote one Computer Weekly reader, "and wish to become an early conformer. I therefore wish to send a copy of all my e-mails direct to the responsible minister and to the security services. Can you advise me of their e-mail addresses?"

Icann was cleared of corruption, after complaints from Internet grassroots groups that it was acting beyond its powers, and that its relationship with the US government should be more transparent. The organisation then put in place a timetable to introduce new domain names - such as .shop or .union - by early next year. In his spending review the chancellor pledged funds to ensure all government services were available online by 2005, and to link every school to the Internet by 2002.

In the month in which Barclays and Alliance & Leicester banks launched far-ranging e-commerce strategies, Lloyd's of London also unveiled an insurance cover to protect businesses from cybercrime.

August 2000

Barclays was endorsing the need for a banking industry forum to tackle Internet security issues at the start of the month. Small wonder. An embarrassing security breach that allowed customers to view other customers' account details forced the bank to shut down its online banking service, just one day after its launch. Hard on the heels of this story came news that Woolworths and Safeway also had to shut down their sites after breaches. In Safeway's case, several thousand customers were sent a spoof e-mail claiming that the supermarket had increased its prices by 25%. Two weeks later, the supermarket's site was still down. All the more galling, then, that Onel de Guzman, the 24-year-old Filipino thought to have incubated the Love Bug virus, had charges against him dropped. At least online bank Egg's use of detection software succeeded in collaring a UK-based gang of Internet credit card fraudsters.

Over at Westminster, the RIP Bill gained royal assent, despite its being labelled "flawed and unworkable" by the director of the Federation for the Electronics Industry. By month's end the Government had agreed to extend the consultation period for the Bill after complaints that insufficient time had been allowed in the holiday season.

Amid growing end-user suspicion of the value of e-marketplaces, the European Commission made its legal position clear when it gave the go-ahead to aerospace Internet exchange MyAircraft.com after an antitrust investigation.

Finally, in the month in which a firm of commercial fraud litigation specialists reported the incidence of e-fraud to have doubled in a year, Computer Weekly's Downtime highlighted the unlikeliest e-scam. "Silver surfers have whipped up a storm in the online needlepoint world," it said. "Using a digital scanner and an online chat room, grannies have been swapping copyright patterns over the Internet for free, saving up to £8 a time. All this underhand activity has rocked the pattern publishing industry, which is now threatening to take legal action against the old dears." Fraud had never seemed soÉ suburban.

September 2000

September, and as the nights began to draw in, e-envoy Allan's wife's illness led to his unexpected resignation. Even as Allan was packing his bags for his return to Australia, Internet watchers were complaining that he should have stood for election for the Icann board. Nominations for candidates for the board of the domain name and number monitoring body closed with no official UK candidate in the fray for election. Computer Weekly pushed for Allan's successor to come, not from the civil service, but from industry-side.

Mid-month, the prime minister sought to regain the trust of business over e-commerce when he launched UK Online, a £1bn effort to push Whitehall's culture into the e-business age. Meanwhile, ADSL finally arrived, not with a bang but a whimper. The bigger telecoms news was the decision by Oftel to take action over BT's dominant position in the broadband data network market. BT countered the news by saying it would lock out rival telecoms firms from a number of its exchanges.

In the Computer Weekly/KEW Associates UK IT expenditure report, there were unequivocal indications that investment in e-commerce projects had rocketed over the past year. News of a cattle farmer who was using Wap devices to keep track of his herd of cows proved that not all of these projects were bog-standard Web site implementations.

October 2000

UK.com bid farewell to Allan, who granted a valedictory interview to Computer Weekly. Pointing to his successes in changing attitudes to e-commerce in government, Allan said, "We've now got a better class of problem". Even as one e-mandarin was leaving, another was getting his feet under the desk. Deciding that if it was to talk the talk, it had better be seen to walk the walk, the Government hired a Webmaster-General to spearhead a drive to improve its Web sites.

There was dismay among users that the Data Protection Registrar and the Home Office seemed to be sending out wildly divergent messages about the extent to which employers could monitor employees' e-mails, calls and surfing. And the RIP saga showed little sign of ending, as the Government gave industry eight weeks to comment on the latest draft codes for the Act.

Towards the end of the month, a survey from msn.co.uk revealed that the UK public is sick of Internet hype. And who could blame them?

There was no escaping e-business by now - even in your own living room. From the makers of This Life, came Attachments, a tale of love and intrigue in a dotcom. Our TV critic wasn't sure whether to call the programme "awfully compelling or compellingly awful". He might just as well have been describing the UK's year in e-business.

Read more on E-commerce technology