One e-commerce demise you might have missed amid the continuing dotcom cull is Mercata, which announced on 4 January that it was ceasing operations at the end of that month. Unlike many other start-ups that deserved to die, Mercata had genuine points of interest.
Mercata's underlying idea of group buying - or 'we-commerce' as it has been dubbed - sounded eminently plausible. The plan was that Mercata would act as a focal point for people looking to buy particular items. By banding together, they could use their increased buying power to wrest lower prices from manufacturers. The more people who joined the group before the purchase deadline, the lower the price.
On the face of it, the idea seemed like a perfect application of the Internet - the drawing together of people to enable them to achieve more collectively than they could individually. But as anyone who followed the we-commerce experiment can attest, group buying sites failed not only to realise that vision, but to generate even a spark of excitement.
Visiting group buying sites was always a dispiriting experience because there seemed to be so little movement in the prices and hence, little incentive to join a group.
Contrast this with the most successful alternative pricing site, eBay. It is clear that many hundreds of thousands of people are more or less addicted to the business of bidding online. As a result, eBay manages to post annual profits that even outpace analyst expectations.
Given the centrality of the buying process to any e-commerce company, it is worth looking at the contrast between Mercata and eBay. Both offered different kinds of we-commerce; ways of bringing people together via the Internet to negotiate deals. Both introduced cut-off points in the deal-making, creating a purchasing dynamic different from that of, say, Amazon.com. And yet Mercata flopped, while eBay flourishes.
The key difference is surely one of user engagement. On Mercata, the group-buying process was logical but simply too dull: prices can only go down so far. On eBay, by contrast, the unpredictable rhythms of the auction ensure that every bid is part of a complex struggle against multiple opponents, where there are no limits on how high offers may go or on what last-minute surprises may be sprung by other bidders.
Privates on parade
Websites are so much a part of business life that it is easy to take them for granted. But however banal the Web page may be for us, remember that every page shares one extraordinary feature: it is totally open to inspection.
That is, when you come across a great design or clever feature, all you need to do is view the underlying HTML code to find out how it was done and then apply it to your own needs. There can have been few such powerful technologies that are so transparent.
One side effect of the open nature of Web pages is that every company can ride on the coat tails of the biggest and best websites around. For example, no e-commerce organisation can match Microsoft for its depth of expertise - or money. Fortunately, it doesn't have to: all of Microsoft's best Web ideas are not only on public display, but can be freely analysed and borrowed.
As is so often the case with Microsoft, early versions of its main website at www.microsoft.com started off badly, but it has steadily improved and is now exemplary in many respects.
One of the central challenges faced by its designers was to provide a way of navigating around what must be one of the largest public websites in existence. This is achieved through the consistent application of design and branding throughout. The result is that every Microsoft page is instantly recognisable and easy to navigate - no mean achievement.
It is instructive to compare the approach taken by another computer giant, Sun, for its site at www.sun.com. Like Microsoft, Sun has sought to address the problem of branding, but in quite a different way. The use of its trademark lavender colour scheme stamps every page with Sun's unique personality even more effectively than Microsoft's approach, which involves a more subtle use of various graphical and textual elements.
Sun also adopts a very simple but effective means of providing navigational clues. Just below the top of each page there is an indication of the current page's place in the overall structure of the site. Even more useful is the left-hand menu, which shows other pages at the same level in the site hierarchy, plus those below the current page.