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Copyright © 2006, Emerald Group Publishing Limited
Is the internet just destined to be an enormous electronic free newspaper?
Every Thursday I pick up the local free paper and scan through it to see if there is anything interesting or relevant to me. Although the paper does not contain great journalistic quality, it is worth seeing what new shops and businesses are around in the community and the letters highlighting the issues worth complaining about. There are also many references to the world wide web and e-mail addresses adorning most of the larger advertisements should you wish to know more.
Although many web sites do not tell you much more and local information is difficult to find given the global nature of the current search engines, this will change as the geographic engines become more readily available. This will base search results on proximity rather than popularity. An interesting site using this technology is www. somewherenear.com where you can find a local pub, restaurant or bed & breakfast around any particular area in the UK. As the internet moves closer to being the main communications system of the world then all the facilities of the local free paper will be combined with all the global ones we require at a click of a hyperlink.
The internet started as early as the late 1970s and was designed to be an effective networking system between computers, allowing users to use several computers at the same time. The development of the world wide web and the computer languages associated with this technology allows us to not only search for the information we require, but to process this in many ways at the same time. In short we could be making more use of the internet to make decisions for us. Instead of asking the question “Which are the ten nearest Indian restaurants to my home so I can select the one I prefer?” We could be asking “Reserve me a table for two at the nearest Indian restaurant serving Rogan Josh and caters for vegetarians”. The web site can then reserve the appropriate table at the selected restaurant. This change of integrating the information of various sites and processing of other sites requires both an openness in the standards required for inter-site communications and an attitude of sharing information within the business community. The internet itself has been an example of this attitude for sharing given that the vast majority of it is run on computers using software licensed by GNU's general public licence that makes both the product and its source freely available. However, most people I have encountered in the business sphere can not see any merit in such an open attitude even though they use it everyday.
It is unlikely that the full potential of the internet can be realised in the near future given the lack of openness of businesses. If the attitudes are to change then positive examples of this are needed. Although I think that this will happen it will not be quick and it certainly will not be without severe setbacks along the way. The new standards such as XML pave the way for this, allowing standards of definitions to be built up over time. In terms of the technology, the internet revolution is now over and the evolution of business is under way. I am sure this process will take decades rather than years as companies learn to redevelop relationships of trust rather than mistrust. I doubt if the process will be complete within my lifetime (currently mid-forties).
The sharing of information between companies has, in my experience, been developed in stages. An example is a manufacturing company I worked for that developed a supply-chain management system linking over 60 organisations. The information was processed at the head office and the results issued to the suppliers over the internet. This whole process was networked, but the shared information was completely controlled and secured in a way that no supplier could utilise it in any way they wanted. This was a real education to many suppliers who were forced to deal with new companies. For example, all the plastic was supplied by one company to the Injection Moulders who supplied the production line. This relationship was confusing for many of executives as their relationships of customer and supplier was no longer clear. In the end the move brought greater trust between the companies but also a greater reliance, which certainly brought about risks.
The development of Amazon has also been interesting in that many organisations have become part of their associates' programme. By linking your site with theirs, any books purchased by way of that link will earn you a percentage of the sale. In this case there is no real way for the associate to tell whether Amazon are telling the truth about the volume of sales, so a relationship of trust is demanded. As a result, over time, they have built up a very solid reputation of honesty and accuracy and now stands as a shining example of success through openness.
Extrapolation of this phenomenon as we can see it, leads to extremes that would make the governments of the world think twice about allowing this trust and openness to be available. Consider the possibility that the local and global aspects of the internet were put into practice and you found a local plumber to fix a water leak. Once the job is completed you could be paying the plumber in rupees through an Indian bank to his company's bank in Hong Kong, but he is registered as an employee in Egypt and the parts he has used are recorded as held in stock in the United States. Who would pay tax and where? Already many governments are approximating the effects on GDP and adjusting accordingly.
One aspect of fear with the internet is the threat of viruses and hacking. This is a real problem that will affect all of us using broadband or any high capacity entry point. One solution has been the firewall. A software process designed to keep out unknown computers from your network. However, the most secure of the systems in general use is open source and part of the Linux operating system. This is found in the majority of routers designed to interface with the internet. So we place great trust in what is known. This would seem paradoxical in most circumstances regarding security, but if you consider the principle that security is collective rather than individual, it makes sense. In the case of these firewalls the definitions are based on each network device having a unique MAC address. If one is duplicated than other information associated to that address is checked (it is almost impossible to duplicate due to the nature of production). The process is known and is also thought to be very secure. Of course it is not impregnable, but then what is?
Despite all the advances in computers over the last 30 years, the crisis revolving around the millennium bug seems almost ridiculous. Particularly as it highlighted how many computer systems were still in operation after more than 20 years and how slow companies had been in updating their technology and taking up new ideas. In my case I helped to install a number of systems in 1999 in order to meet the deadline and, at the same time, introduced the new ideas of e-mail and the internet. In the cases of these companies (some multinational) it triggered their venture into using the internet and they are now converts to this technology. I am convinced that fear has driven the change in these cases. Having said that it took a few more years for the staff of these organisations to stop using word-processed attachments in order to lower the risk of viruses and reduce the network traffic. I remember showing one firm the possibility of using the internet to link to another plant overseas and integrating the accounting and order processing. This was also accessible to customers on a restricted and controlled basis. They loved the demonstration and clearly liked the prospects, but they would only like to be the customer in this open relationship and not the supplier. The system was installed without the use of the internet and a closed network was commissioned.
We are increasing our use of the internet considerably and it has had the fastest take up of any technology at any time, beating the telephone and the television, but so far it has not really changed our culture. It has simply offered another way of doing the same things as before, adding a new level of complication rather than simplifying our lives. We have already seen the emergence of some services such as Amazon.com that have not only led the field in their way of site design, but also in the way they are introducing a change of attitudes in the business community in dealing with them. This amounts to a change of consciousness or a paradigm shift in our business relationships. But this is only a start. Can we really see a future where security and low risk is found through openness and community? It may just be a lovely dream. Until this happens the internet will remain an enormous electronic free paper.
Omar RafiqiThe views expressed in this paper are those of Omar Rafiqi, a consultant working for Linteq, an Internet Consultancy firm based in Bromsgrove in Worcestershire. He has been involved in the IT industry since graduating from Royal Holloway College, University of London in 1981 with a BSc in Mathematics and Chemistry. Since 1989 he has been both a consultant and Interim Manager for a number of companies including large multinational multibillion dollar organisations. He has been responsible for IT budgets and projects exceeding several millions in value. He is a partner in Lintequation