The Ride Is Over And I M Done Throwing Up
Posted on 24 Apr 2000
by Ben Henick (persist1)
Rated 3.91 (Ratings: 1)
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The rapt - but undue - attention recently paid to the marketshighlights the fact that the Web is growing up as a medium and as a mode of commerce. Lots of people are holding their breath to seewhat happens next.
I'm not sure I care. I genuinely care about the future of the Web, and it's not my version of Who Wants To Be a Millionaire? - I'd simply rather not go back to being a prep cook in order to pay rent, though worse things have happened in my life.
If anything, the gold-rush nature of the Web industry is something I can't wait to outlive. My opinion is that the fin de siècle promises to bring things back to normal (or at least, what we Web oldsters hoped normal would be).
For a long time, I've been under the impression that people are not ready for the Web as a tool for generating revenue. I know that Jakob Nielsen would certainly find merit in that point of view... and now that the gee-whiz factor of e-commerce is starting to lose its grip on the financial markets, the people who make the seminal decisions will start making them with an eye on common sense.
It's not a scene from The Jetsons just yet
"Disintermediation" has been one of the buzzwords of the Internet Revolution from the beginning, but it's only the little guys - and Ebay - who really seem to have gotten it down. For what it's worth, even they stumble, and often.
Without regard to medium commerce is not the mere sale or obtainment of goods and services. Anyone who's bothered to get an overview of the Industrial Revolution knows fully well that trust, and other human factors in the interaction between vendor and customer, play the better part of fulfillment. America Online and Microsoft have proven this: they've identified a strong need, and they've turned their energies to fulfilling that need at the best profit margin.
I'm reminded of a history of marketing I once read that made a valuable point: when mass-produced food products started appearing a century or so ago, people were reluctant to buy them because the goods were not as tangible. Because a box stood in between the product and the notional consumer, there was a barrier to trust. From what I can see, e-commerce is facing a similar barrier.
The human factors are of the highest importance when we do Real World shopping, and I think most consumers subconsciously expect the same to hold true online. I don't buy the cheapest groceries in the neighborhood because I have more trust in a more-expensive supermarket, and I'm waiting for a good alternative to B&N and Amazon - and that site will be just as easy to get around in as one of those old neighborhood bookstores that no longer exist. That site will have a customer service staff that can actually talk with you.
Order fulfillment has always been the dirty little secret of e-commerce - it may be listed on the site, but is it really available? Will they actually ship it when they say they will? Forrester Research among others have noted that this is an Achilles' heel for any venture that is ISO-IPO.
Customer service is another issue. I still refuse to shop online for two reasons:
- Credit card companies are starting to get mad at e-tailers. In most cases this is because of fulfillment problems that result in customers asking to have their charges removed - in the case of "normal" transactions, even.
- If I make an order and it gets bollixed, then my mode of communication is email. Who's to say when I'll get an answer? And for my money, I'd rather talk to someone on the phone.
I've seen a lot of articles on the subject of who VC's like, and who they don't... but "experienced managers" are only part of the puzzle.
The gee-whiz factor of e-commerce and its brethren is gone (if it was ever there) and it's Microsoft's legal troubles that have taken the bloom from the rose.
Bringing "balance to the force?"
For the record, I think it's poppycock that people are afraid of a Microsoft breakup.
The example of AT&T is quite relevant to what is presently being faced: the present-day AT&T, Bell Labs/Lucent, and "Baby Bells" have far more market and real value than they did in 1984 (the date the breakup actually took place, almost ten years after the ruling).
For all its evils Microsoft is too much a lodestone of intellectual capital for its breakup (which isn't a done deal*) to be anything more than a net gain to the economy. The proof of Microsoft's success - that marketing and a modicum of accessibility are more important to revenue than quality - will not be forgotten.
Engineers and Webheads who are building e-commerce have heard that gospel, and believe it. While the Web will never be the City On a Hill that Jakob Nielsen preaches, it will continue to get better. In fact, the present troubles of the markets will improve its chances in the long run because the business-school/Visual C++/PHB carpetbaggers will move on to the next Big Thing even as site design becomes recognized for the discrete discipline it's always been.
I know I've just postulated that the reliability and usability of the Web doesn't look to improve anytime soon - and recent launches like Lucy would seem to support that view.
That's only half the story. As customer conversion and revenue move to the center of our focus, the human factors of e-commerce will start to make themselves more visible... and "gee-whiz" will have nothing to do with that process.
A brave new world, indeed.
*No offense is meant by this inclusion. I do not, on the other hand, want to leave anyone under the impression that I'm a supporter of Microsoft's position on the lawsuit, which has been linked here as a second personal nod to the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.
Cited: Strasser, Susan. Satisfaction Guaranteed : The Making of the American Mass Market. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1995. 339p.