Electronic Commerce (eCommerce)
How can being "on the ‘Net" be of practical and measurable benefit to the owner/manager of the emerging business -- today? Let’s begin to look at some of these ways. Of course, it is first necessary to be connected to the Internet.
Naturally, the prerequisite is a PC with a modem and preferably at least a 486 CPU; a dedicated ISDN (Integrated Services Digital Network) telephone service is not essential initially, but may become most convenient as the service is used more extensively in the future. A primary question is whether to work with one of the popular commercial online services -- e.g., America Online, CompuServe, Microsoft MSN, or Prodigy -- or with an Internet service provider (ISP) -- e.g., Netcom, TIAC, or PSINet. Each of these access services offers different pricing schedules and different technical capabilities; they now all offer full, interactive access via their networks to the Internet. The necessary software is provided by most of the access services either via disk or online downloading.. For most business needs, one of the most important considerations in choosing an ISP is the ease with which an access service handles "attached files" -- the documentation accompanying "email." For the first-time business user, connecting with one of the major commercial online services cannot be a "wrong" initial step, but one of the specialized ISPs may well prove to better meet one’s business needs as more experience is gained.
The first use of the Internet is almost always electronic mail ("email") -- the most popular mode of communication on the Internet. Email is quickly becoming the communications medium of choice among many large as well as smaller businesses. Messages can be composed off-line, and then transmitted instantaneously to any place in the world including other service providers (with a failure message if delivery cannot be made). There is no cost; you are connected through a local telephone exchange by your access service. Email can be transmitted anytime day or night, and is available to the recipient immediately upon accessing their electronic "mailbox." Laptop computers enable one’s "mailbox" to be accessed from any place in the world. The standard Internet protocol for the exchange of email messages is SMTP (simple mail transfer [or transport] protocol). The SMTP protocol is text-based confined to the US-ASCII character set, i.e., more-or-less the characters found on a standard US keyboard.
For almost all smaller businesses, it is essential that email be able to accommodate "attached files"-- e.g., price lists, quotations, technical specifications, test reports, spreadsheets, and other documentation. Files may be attached to email messages using the MIME (multipurpose Internet mail extensions) protocol -- the public domain multimedia standard for Internet SMTP email systems. Graphics, audio clips, or video can accompany an email message by using MIME attachments. MIME serves two primary functions -- it enables mail applications to tell one another what kind of data is in the mail, and it also provides recognized ways for mail applications to encode data so that it can be transmitted through the Internet mail system.
Like conventional postal services, the simplest use of email is point-to-point communications: A sends a message to B; B may then chose to respond to A. Email programs offer many other unique features, e.g., B’s response can automatically copy A’s message so that B can then answer each paragraph without having to re-phrase A’s letter; and B can automatically forward A’s email to C and D and others, even adding comments, if needed.
Moreover, email also offers the opportunity to construct powerful group mailing lists; email can be broadcast to an audience of literally thousands of recipients almost instantaneously. And this is virtually cost-free; not only are there no postage costs, but the expenses of printing, folding, stuffing, sealing, and lugging everything to the Post Office are avoided.
If a business establishes a Web presence, email is a powerful tool for gathering information about visitors (potential customers). An email address can be captured for every visitor to a site; this is akin to capturing an image of the driver’s license for every visitor to a Macy’s department store -- no purchase necessary! A well-designed Web site will have an email plaque (pre-addressed) inviting the visitor’s comments, suggestions and questions -- i.e., immediate feedback. Because of its speed and informality, there is a special intimacy to email even though the communicators may be quite distant. Email offers the opportunity for truly interactive publication.
Although many are still oblivious to this change, email has already revolutionized business communications. Today, the owner/manager of almost all smaller businesses cannot exist without email any more than they could formerly survive without a telephone. Overnight, it has become a basic and very powerful tool of business!
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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