3/01 - CeBIT 2001 -
• E-commerce is the driving force behind today's IT industry
• Many companies need to upgrade their hardware for new Internet applications
CeBIT 2001, which takes place in Hannover from 22nd to 28th March, documents more than anything else the rapid pace of development in e-commerce. This applies both to the electronic processing of business-to-business transactions and to the development of online communications between companies and consumers. As a universally accessible platform the Internet has made it possible for suppliers and purchasers of goods and services to make contact and transact business in "electronic marketplaces." According to analysts at the Gartner Group in London, the market volume of e-commerce in Europe alone is set to grow from 35 billion dollars today to over one trillion dollars by the year 2004. The Gartner survey also reveals that more than three quarters of all European firms now regard the Internet as an essential pillar of modern business life.
Companies interested in keeping their customers can no longer afford to ignore the Internet as a means of doing business. For a growing number of consumers the Internet has become a part of daily life, and home banking via the PC, booking a holiday, searching for new book titles, bidding at an auction and even buying a new car on the Internet are simply taken for granted today. And with the development of new infrastructures these services are no longer available only on fixed networks, but can now be accessed via mobile phone networks too.
With the emergence of mobile e-commerce a new market has been created for software developers. Within a few years more people will be accessing the Internet via mobile phones or other portable devices than via the desktop PC. Many applications for Internet access on the move are now being developed on the basis of WAP technology (wireless application protocol). Thousands of software houses large and small now offer mobile applications for every area of life. Mobile phone users now have access to the same range of services — from banking transactions to hotel bookings — as customers who access the Internet from a PC in their home or office. According to industry observers, one of the biggest growth markets in the future will be games, which mobile phone users will be able to play by accessing the Internet on the move through a new generation of mobile networks, such as GPRS (general packet radio service) and the new UMTS (universal mobile telecommunications system).
The Internet as an aid to decision-making
For many consumers the Internet is already an important decision-making tool when shopping for new products. For example, market researchers at J.D. Power, Boston, discovered that last year 40% of the USA's 17.4 million new car buyers were influenced in their car purchase by the Internet. By 2003 that figure is expected to rise to 90%.
Suppliers of goods and services will have to upgrade
To cope with the expected boom in e-commerce, businesses will need to upgrade their existing computer systems and infrastructures. So-called "enterprise information systems" are generally tailored to the requirements of individual firms, and are stored on the databases of various manufacturers. CeBIT 2001 will be presenting a wide range of suitable systems platforms.
From shop window to electronic store
The growing demand from customers for an interactive relationship with the suppliers of goods and services means that old systems are having to deliver new functions. These extend far beyond the type of communication with the customer that has been expected in the past. Until about two years ago the Internet functioned simply as a shop window, where goods were put on display for the potential buyer to view. The only choice the buyer had was between different shop windows. There was no "real" interaction between the customer's systems and those of the supplier. But with today's more sophisticated shopping systems all that has changed. Now the user is guided interactively by intelligent shop assistants, who steer him through the selection process with on-screen advice and support. This is precisely the kind of application that calls for a high degree of integration between the systems of the supplier and those of the customer.
The development of so-called "electronic marketplaces" for the automobile industry or for financial services is a big help to consumers who need to find their way around the worldwide web. Someone who is looking for a particular make and model of car, for example, can go to the appropriate electronic marketplace and check out the prices quickly and easily, without getting lost among the thousands of service providers who advertise and sell on the Net.
Buying or renting: now there's a choice
Software suppliers see good growth opportunities in the rental of their programs. Analysts are predicting that the ASP market (application service providing) could be worth DM 22 billion by the year 2003. The benefit for the user lies primarily in the fact that he can always get hold of the latest version of his chosen software by downloading it on the Internet — and he doesn't have to worry about installation and service support. So far the ASP concept has been largely confined to the professional end of the market. But experts anticipate that in future consumer-oriented software for portable devices such as mobile phones, personal organizers and games consoles will also be rented out over the Internet in this way. The providers of these services will need to develop appropriate billing systems and customer service operations, which in turn will call for new kinds of software.
Standards for data exchange
A general format used for data exchange is XML (extended marker language). However, XML is not supported by the existing older systems of many companies. Another problem is that individual systems, such as the product database, the merchandise management system or the logistics database, are often made by different manufacturers, and therefore need to be operated via different interfaces.
The Internet reroutes incoming inquiries to the different systems and receives information for the customer by return. From this information the web server creates a page on the supplier's site which the customer sees on his computer screen. This requires the web server to communicate with the applications server. When the customer has completed the ordering procedure, the applications server passes on the information received from the customer to the applications on the host systems. These must be capable of responding immediately to the inquiry and supplying any information required, e.g. on delivery times.
Communication is a two-way street
Many older systems are not set up for the kind of "two-way traffic" described above. Very few companies would want to dump their entire existing IT systems in favor of total reliance on an integrated Internet-based solution. The alternative is to develop an intelligent business-to-business portal, designed to activate the new marketing channel offered by the Internet and connect customers with the background systems.
A B2B portal consists of two parts: the "front end" seen by the customer, with the presentation of contents, and the "back end," where the processes are managed and controlled by the supplier. The two parts of the shopping system are linked via applications on the web server and the applications server, where the business components such as order processing, stock availability checking, personalizing, and perhaps an intelligent shopping basket are all installed.
The market for applications software continues to develop
Applications servers effectively function as an operating system which creates applications as required. CeBIT 2001 will reflect the growing sophistication and diversity of this market, and will be showing many applications which are not tied to the applications servers of a single manufacturer. The customer is then able to purchase business components that work together with applications servers from different suppliers.
Specialized markets have evolved for these business components, based on specific types of business. These go a long way towards meeting the demands of business users for specialized expertise in particular areas, such as marketing control or order processing. However, the growing number of solutions available is making it increasingly difficult for the business user to make the right choice. He is increasingly reliant on professional guidance from consultants, who advise on the selection and setting up of systems.
A growing range of end-user devices
Today the customer is confronted by a bewildering choice of end-user devices, both for desktop and for portable use. In technical terms the desktop PC, developed twenty years ago, is fast approaching classic, if not vintage status; but the latest models have much faster processors and offer more and more performance capability for data-intensive applications involving the transfer of images or 3D animation. A year ago processor speeds of 400 MHz were commonplace, but visitors to CeBIT 2001 can now buy computers that offer nearly three times that level of performance. Set-top boxes, network computers and above all portable devices such as mobile phones and PDAs (personal digital assistants) add to the choice available. For example, the industry is unveiling prototype models of a completely new PC concept, known as the "tablet PC." As well as performing all the functions of a desktop computer, these ultra-flat devices can also process handwritten material. Written text or drawings executed with a pen on a portable screen the size of a sheet of writing paper can be stored, corrected, reformatted and searched in exactly the same way as typed text — something that has only been possible with typed input so far. It will take at least two more years of development, however, before the 2.5 cm thick "electronic writing pad" is ready to go into series production.
New phones for the mobile phone market
The mobile phone has become a mass-market consumer item. By 2005, according to a survey by Ericsson, the number of mobile phone users worldwide will have risen to 1300 million. 1000 million of these will also have access to mobile Internet services. At present the take-up rate for WAP phones, which offer Internet access based on the "wireless application protocol," is relatively slow, but by 2005 WAP phones are likely to be the norm. Compared with PC-based applications, where color and animation are the dominant features of the display, the possibilities for displaying information on small portable devices are still very limited. But as new broad-band infrastructures for mobile communications become available, we will see the development of applications that cater for the habits and expectations of PC users on smaller displays and allow information to be displayed in color. Prototypes of UMTS phones with these functions will be among the innovations to be unveiled at CeBIT 2001.
Speech-based solutions a trend of the future
Industry forecasters see speech-based web services as the next so-called "killer application." Within five years more than 2000 million people are expected to be using speech-based web sites, portals and Internet services. Speech-based e-commerce solutions will be particularly useful for mobile users. During a car journey, for example, a subscriber might need to access services such as route-finding, hotel information or translation services via a certain portal. All he has to do is to speak the name of his portal provider — and the speech-activated portal will give him instant access to the services he wants.
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