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Quick Results Key To E-Commerce

Wednesday, May 12, 1999

TORONTO, ONTARIO, CANADA, Newsbytes via NewsEdge Corporation : Too many World Wide Web sites fail to give customers whatthey want, said John Patrick, vice-president of Internet technology at IBM [NYSE:IBM], in a keynote address at the eighth World Wide Web conference (WWW8) today. What they want is results.
“Expectations are expanding by the day,” he said. Yet many Web sites still can do more than tell customers who are ready to buy to phone during regular office hours or print out a form and fax it. If a person goes to a Web site to buy something, clicks on a link and gets a message that says the office is closed and he or she will have to phone on Monday morning, that customer will probably go somewhere else, he said.

In an interview with Newsbytes Wednesday, Patrick said that when people say they want to talk to real people, what many of them mean is simply that they want to get what they want with minimum hassle. The person who gets frustrated with endless voice-mail menus and says “I want to talk to a person” does not really want to talk to a person so much as he or she wants to cut through the menu and get an answer, he said.

That need for quick results is one reason Patrick believes general- interest Web portals are overrated. “All purpose portals provide a valuable service for newbies, for people who aren’t exactly sure what they want to do right now,” he said. But many people know what they want and will not click through many steps to get there. However, Patrick said, specialized portals that focus on particular communities of interest may have a bright future.

Patrick told Newsbytes the public have largely become comfortable with giving their credit card numbers on the Web. However, he said, there remain some serious authentication and trust issues. “People have generally learned to accept that if they see the solid lock or key that something is going on that prevents their credit card from being stolen,” he said. However, they may still wonder whether the server to which they are talking really is who it says it is.

At the same time, online merchants may wonder whether the clients connected to their servers are who they say they are. To get around that problem, Patrick said, ways of authenticating both clients and servers will be critical. The best answer will be public-key encryption and digital signatures, which will also eliminate the problem of people having multiple ID codes for different systems.

Because a private key could be given to someone else, he added, biometrics – the use of physical characteristics such as fingerprints and retina scans for identification – may also be useful.

Internet capacity will not be a major problem, Patrick said. “Certainly there are problems,” he said in his keynote address, “but I tend to think the glass is half full, not half empty.” Technologies such as digital subscriber line (DSL) and cable modems offer substantial bandwidth, he said, and with telephone and cable companies crossing over onto each other’s turf, coupled with other options such as satellite transmission, fixed wireless, and even data transmission over the power grid, there will be intense competition, which will be good for the consumer.

Increased bandwidth will improve capabilities such as video, Patrick forecast. And, he said, always-on Internet connections will become increasingly common. “The concept of logging on is soon going to be as obsolete as ring me up an operator so I can get connected with the person I want to talk to.”

Patrick said the Extensible Markup Language (XML) will be a very important development, because it can “accelerate the integration of applications and data across all industries by providing standards for the way data is defined.”

In his speech, Patrick outlined a few new capabilities that might become more common on the Web. One was instant messaging. He showed an electronic “buddy list” that indicates whether regular contacts are online or not at a given time. If one is, you can send a message instantly and the person receives it right away.

That demo also included real-time language translation and text-to-speech synthesis.

“Think about the possibilities here,” Patrick said. “Think about a real-time, multilingual intercom,” where a person might ask a question in one language, have it routed to the person most knowledgeable about the subject, and get an instant answer translated from that person’s language.