This article by Stuart Adams appeared in Louisville Computer News November, 1999
"All hope abandon, ye who enter here." So say the gates of Hell, according to Dantes centuries old Inferno. These words, however, might just as well be used today by those opening their portal to transact business at an Internet e-commerce site. The Internet became popular, partially because it was "lawless," in the sense of being without laws. It was a realm useful to academics and the military but with no apparent commercial value. Well, times have obviously changed.
The Internet was once like a beautiful trail in the woods, pristine and unspoiled. You could wander in safety and just enjoy the environment. Now, so many others, with different agendas have also discovered the trail. Theyve put up billboards to direct everyone to it. Theyve cut down trees and paved over areas so you can park your car at the entrance, and theres talk of putting in a toll booth. Theyve left their garbage all around, and now there are both vandals and thieves lurking in the depths of the woods. Everyone else, crowding you on the once lonely trail, just seems intent on trying to find a new way to make money off the experience.
What went wrong? Well, perhaps nothing has gone "wrong," since thats a largely subjective opinion, but the landscape has certainly changed. Since some people prefer buildings to trees, we must be careful in making judgments. What seems uncontroverted, however, is that e-businesses could do better, and must.
Those of us engaged in e-commerce are on a path, not totally unlike the one on which our forefathers traveled to "Go West" generations ago. The way was largely uncharted, but as they explored it they changed it. Now its paved. Is that better? This again is a subjective judgment, but few of us like the potholes in the interstate. It seems inevitable that the lonely trail has already become an expressway. In the process, some trees have fallen. Like our forefathers, perhaps we can at least try to fell only those trees we really need to, and we should make sure they dont fall on anybody in the process.
Unfortunately, building with minimal damage to the "e-co system" and concern for others does not always seem to be in the business plan for many Internet oriented companies. A perfect example can be found in the "browser wars." Originally a battle between Microsoft and a little start-up called Netscape, these two companies tore each other up and in the process caused innumerable problems for their customers, as well. AOL has joined in the fray, magnifying the problem for customers as the corporate giants battle for market share and control.
If youve been living in a cave for the last ten years (without a laptop or Palm VII), you may not know that several of these browser producing companies have somehow mysteriously managed to continuously come out with bigger (at least in hard drive space) and "better" software to help you browse better. Better, however, may mean that when you install the upgrade, the install program "accidentally" mangles your computer settings, so that you can no longer use another browser. Gee, what an accident! Even the hardiest of us will typically try to tweak the settings to get our other browser back, but eventually, in many cases, give up. Isnt this what they calculated?
Microsoft has obviously been accused of such chicanery in its efforts to crush Netscape. Various Windows® versions have seemed to make it nearly impossible to use another browser. Now AOLs latest upgrade is apparently following the same path of destroying settings for other browsers. Maybe its a coincidence. Maybe its not. No judgments here, but whats going on?
Another browser example is the "buddy" list issue and instant message system where you are advised that your friend, relatives or colleagues are online in real time, if you have set up your browser software properly. Of course, these other folks must typically be using the same software. When one browser company allowed you to log on to the network of another to find "friends" who were using another software product, a media frenzy ensued as the player companies alleged security concerns from such unauthorized breaches of their internal security systems. Each side then furiously set about releasing a string of "upgrades" which coincidentally locked out the competitors buddies, only to have the competitor also release an "upgrade" which pierced the armor of the first companys database.
Meanwhile, thousands of passwords continue to be pirated every day. If the Internet is supposed to be "free," why cant we talk in real time to our friends, using such software, without this sort of controversy. Seems to me the technology is clearly here, but its the market share battle that keeps us from realizing the true potential of this. The competition is great, because to become or remain competitive these companies must actually periodically develop an improvement. Lets just not kill all the trees and the customers in the process.
The real question is, who has the power here? Is it the giant corporation that can do anything it wants to us and the competition if they market the "got to have it" aspects of their new product effectively enough? Maybe it will be the customers, who may switch away from one product to another such as, say LINUX?
What about those Internet companies that say they are not accumulating personal information about you when you browse their site? Then, the next day, you start getting a bunch of unsolicited e-mail from companies that seem to have found you out of the stratosphere, but seem to have some connection to a site you visited the previous day.
Fortunately, at least in this case, the government is stepping in on the issue of protection of the privacy of minors, with legislation like the new Childrens Online Privacy Protection Act. This Act would seemingly require companies to obtain parental permission before collecting personal information from children. On the other hand, the Electronic Privacy Information Center, a nonprofit advocacy group, has filed suit against the Federal Trade Commission, the agency charged with developing regulations and enforcing such legislation, because EPIC alleges the FTC has not been doing its job in the enforcement area.
There are a multitude of bad business decisions being made by e-commerce companies. They include bringing products to market too soon, in order to beat the competition, but without testing the product satisfactorily to avoid at least minimal bugs. Window® 98 had a patch out almost before the main product hit the shelf. The last several products I have purchased have come with drivers which were outdated, even though the product itself had only been out for a few months. Technical support at many of these shops seems to be a little short, to say the least.
My own ISP seems to be making promises of technical support reply by e-mail within 24 hours, only to miss the self-imposed deadline by days, or by not responding at all. Literally, the last three times I have installed a new device, such as a network ISDN modem and a 30 gigabyte tape backup, technical support has had to apologize because the specs were wrong, drivers were incorrect, or previous technical support had given incorrect advice.
The PC and Internet arena is obviously becoming much too complex for many of these companies to work in efficiently. Standards, however, are necessary to protect consumers from such market frenzy. The market can correct itself, the government can step in (perhaps not always a good thing) or the consumers can rebel.
Even the government has fallen prey to market hype. In an effort to be flashy in the economic development arena, for instance, a local (unnamed for now) state government, has felt compelled to use technology in its Web site that both refuses to let you use your "back" button to reverse yourself out of the site, and also incorporates an application which crashes many systems, requiring them to reboot. I understand that state and local governments are in competition for business development, but does an animated icon or a ten second video really help us get it if the "customer" has less than a state-of-the-art machine or does not have all the latest plug-ins for their browser?
In an increasingly common story, unless you have obtained an upgrade of an application used at the site, your machine may lock up. You have to escape the site, go to another site, download and install the upgrade to the software, perhaps having to reboot again to make sure it is installed correctly, and then revisit the government site. I, for one, have to question if this is really being consumer friendly. At a commercial site, I probably would not visit again, but would go to the competition to find what I need. At a government site, which may be the only place to get the information, I may have little choice.
There may be a trend of industry self-help. A new consortium, called the Trusted Computing Alliance, is for instance, trying to develop a new industry standard for PC security. Several companies have joined together in this effort, including Intel, Microsoft, Compaq, Hewlett-Packard and IBM, to develop basic hardware and software security standards. You can find them at http://www.trustedpc.org.
There are many such industry groups forming for similar purposes, because they have the foresight to know that if they dont control the process of fixing the problems, somebody else will. This is a good trend in my opinion, and one we consumers need to foster. I have already made a decision to never shop again at some online stores which did not give me reasonable satisfaction on technical support. I am also willing to pay a little more, to those that do act responsibly.
In the end, I think it is the consumers who must make e-commerce work. Just like with politics, if you dont vote, dont gripe. Progress and change may sometimes be slow in politics, but with the speed of e-commerce, voting with your dollars for the "good" companies and withholding your money from the irresponsible ones, should result in a more consumer friendly virtual world.