Electronic Commerce (eCommerce)
The Internet is becoming an increasingly important part of life at the close of the Twentieth Century, and its impact upon the lives of all of us is extraordinary. Nobody can envision where this extravaganza may be going and almost everybody acknowledges that the Web is littered with cultural blight. But what does all of this mean to the owner/manager of the smaller business?
Recognizing that vast numbers of people in all stations of life are still not "Web literate," a quick history and explanation of this phenomenon may be helpful. The Internet is an end-product of a project launched in 1968 by the US Department of Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA). Initially called the ARPANet, this was designed to offer a network service for computer communications sharing research work over a wide area. The packet-switched ARPANet started as four interconnected computers (hosts) in September 1969 -- three in California and one in Nevada. Interestingly, in contrast with the highly-centralized network of the telephone company, this initial highly-decentralized network (packet switching and distributed switching) was designed deliberately by the DoD to survive a nuclear attack. A standard networking protocol -- a communications protocol for exchanging data between computers on a network -- evolved in 1973 and 1974 from the diverse educational and research activities involved in ARPA contracts. This became known as TCP/IP (transmission control protocol and Internet protocol) or the IP suite of protocols that enabled ARPANet computers to communicate irrespective of their computer operating system or their computer software.
Once these protocols were established, much of the software and services that comprise today’s Internet emerged. The primary services for remote connectivity, file transfer, and electronic mail appeared in the mid and late ‘70s. The term "Internet" was coined around 1979, but was not in common usage until the mid ‘80s. The Usenet news system was initiated in 1981. The Internet "gopher" file search and transfer system emerged from the University of Michigan the following year.
The World Wide Web information service made its debut in 1989. Developed primarily by Tim Berners-Lee at CERN (Conseil Europeen pour la Recherche Nucleaire), the Web (or W3) was initially a mechanism enabling physicists to share research documents (initially, text-based; then graphical) via the Internet. Today, the Web enables computer users to access information across systems around the world using URLs (uniform resource locators, or addresses) identifying files and systems, and hypertext links to then transport files on the same or on different systems.
By 1990, many other networks had been connected to the ARPANet; therefore, its function as the network spinal column was assumed by the NSFNet funded by the National Science Foundation -- today’s Internet. Networking companies and organizations furnishing data linkages to all the Internet hosts are now expanding their mission to deliver convenient global network access. In view of the many research institutes and universities connected to it, about one-third of the Internet is still a research and educational network. However, commercial communications now represent the majority of Internet traffic.
As recently as 1993, almost all of those accessing the Internet were still university users or former university users at computer-related corporations. But in only three hectic years, the demographics have been revolutionized by the graphical user interface -- "browser." Mosaic -- the first widely available browser -- was developed by a team of students at the University of Michigan/National Center for Supercomputing Applications (NCSA) in 1993. This browser was installed on FTP (file transfer protocol) servers (host computers) connected to the Internet and, during beta testing, made available via free download.
Complementing the amiable browser -- the latch key to the Internet -- two other critical resources appeared at the same time. First, increasingly robust PCs gave millions of non-techies the tool with which to easily access the Internet. And second, increasingly powerful cataloging and searching tools -- e.g., AltaVista, Yahoo!, Infoseek, and Lycos -- enable one to literally search the entire world almost instantly in pursuit of any kind of data or information. The resources now available are indeed mind-boggling.
Today, the dominant Web browser is Netscape Navigator, both in terms of functionality and popularity. It is estimated that more than 60 percent of all Internet accesses are made via Netscape. The Internet is no longer the esoteric house-mail system of academia. These powerful and readily-mastered new tools have now opened this extraordinary informational and communications resource to the whole world -- and at a startlingly low cost.
But how can all of this high-tech stuff with its unintelligible vocabulary be of practical benefit to the owner/manager of the smaller business -- today? In many ways! Online interactive communications and business development will be the continuing focus of subsequent columns.
Your comments and suggestions for these pages are most welcome!
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Revised: June 24, 1996 TAF
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