Remote Possibilities?

Andrew Haveland-Robinson Pg. Dip. MIT
October 1995

 The Internet and the Future

The invisible revolution continues, the Internet is here in a big way, and will change the way we live and work. Those reluctant to change, because they are comfortable the way they are, will find their competitiveness in price, quality, efficiency and time-to-market will nose-dive in relation to those who have learned to embrace the benefits that the “Superhighway” will bring.

Today, we can’t imagine business life without the familiar fax, and tomorrow we won’t be able to imagine business life without E-mail, the World Wide Web, voicemail, videomail, Ecash and yet-to-be-dreamt-of facilities. However, these are likely to require more bandwidth and processing power than can at present be provided to the population. We need more investment in capacity, creativity and affordable access for everyone.

Looking back, the facsimile had a big impact in the business world, because it was easy (the policeman who sent a fax 20 times because the original didn’t disappear still found it easy, even if he didn’t understand it!). Unfortunately, fax paper is expensive, fades and can require photocopying and filing. Its real purpose was to familiarise businesses with technology. While faxes proliferated, the obscure Internet was continuing to expand and waiting for the media to discover it. Prices of large hard disks have plunged, fast modems are cheaper than ever, and the consumer market is opening up to the wealth of information that is out there.

In September 1995 corporate traffic exceeded traditional traffic on the Internet. The Internet is now driven by commerce and companies are falling over themselves trying to get a presence because competitors are doing the same. They can put their brochures and catalogues on-line, performing automatic marketing and selling.

The Web is the fastest growing phenomena on the Internet (over 1% per day) because everyone from infants upwards can use it with 2 minute’s instruction. The unforgiving computer is transformed into a friendly vehicle for discovery.
It embodies and simplifies other protocols, such as E-mail transmission and FTP for browsing and transferring files. Upgrades and driver updates are already easily available from software producers with tiny distribution costs on their part.

Anyone who uses the Web for the first time cannot help being completely overawed at the immense potential that it offers now. Yet, it is also an infinitesimal fraction of what it yet has to offer even in the near future. For instance, Yellow Pages are now providing Internet access to their databases, and major publishers are providing subscriptions to encyclopaedias, newspapers and magazines.

Getting a Web presence on the Internet is relatively cheap compared to traditional publishing and advertising — first find any site in the world that is already connected, has space to spare and a permanent presence, and design the multimedia information you want your customers to see (design and knowledge are the expensive bits). It can either be a single page with a biography of your cat and a picture of the school you go to, or a fully fledged graphical database of products and services that the customer can pick and choose and pay for with a variety of means. Then give the search databases the Web address and key words and it’ll be instantly available to all those around the world looking for the information you have to offer.

The key to the success of a business having a WWW presence is being listed on as many search databases as possible. Search engines are also important to the success of the WWW itself, making it easier to find information, services and products, rather than relying on luck and detective skills. At last we can search for advertising instead of suffering indiscriminate bombardment.

In the short term, ISDN can help if the price of installation and terminal equipment is reduced. In the medium term, cable and Asynchronous Transfer Mode (ATM) will provide much higher bandwidth for the much vaunted video-on-demand, (it could also enable the consumer to be part of the action!). For the general consumer, traffic will nearly always be asymmetric, using slow channels for choosing or voting. However, as more people become dependent on communications for work, provision must be made to ensure that consumers can give as much as they receive.


 Electronic Shopping

Internet Shopping is now the next huge growth area in the information age, heralding the arrival of Email Order.

Sainsbury’s are successfully using it experimentally to sell wine by the case. Customers browse the wines on offer, with pictures, prices and detailed descriptions and simply enter quantities required. At the end of the session, the total bill is displayed. If the customer wants the goods, a form is provided for contact details to be submitted. Sainsbury’s then call back and take VISA details over the phone. The order is then shipped to the customer. When the product range is expanded, and electronic payment matures, one could simply present a list of regular items to the supplier and have the goods delivered. In fact, with computerised warehousing, the only humans involved could be those required to physically deliver the items. All restocking orders from the warehouse can be automatically placed to their suppliers. Streamlining the process further, Sainsbury’s need not exist, except to provide the facility, as orders could be placed individually to the raw producers. Would this spell the end for hypermarkets and food monopolies? Faxes and E-mail will dent Post Office profits still further, but they will ride this by delivering more mail-order items.

A small subset of what is and will be possible in the on-line market place:
Booking tickets, airline flights, ferries etc. the Internet will make it easy, but also reduce the need!
Imagine, booking a ticket to the theatre and being able to select available seats, and using virtual reality to be able to see what the stage will look like from that position.
It will be possible to remotely watch a stereo video performance from the actual seat with holophonic audio. There will thus emerge a market in shared experiences, where customers could book high-tech heads equipped with remote control, stereo vision and acoustically accurate hearing.

Electronic Cash

Of course, services will need to be paid for and electronic cash is on the verge of being available, and will truly open up the way for Internet Shopping. The Internet is not inherently secure, but can be made so. There are several proposed types of electronic cash, two of them are Digicash and Mondex. Digicash comprises a file containing validated serial numbers representing money. These “electronic coins” can be bought using a normal banking transaction for example, and can be used as currency on-line — great for the Internet, but large volumes of transactions put pressure on a necessarily centralised electronic banking system. A transaction requires each “coin” to be authenticated by the bank, and destroyed when spent, while the payee is issued with new coins with new serial numbers. It is a process that can work well in cyberspace, with accrued assets being exchanged for “real” money, or transferred to a smart card.

Mondex uses the smart card approach, which makes it appealing in the physical high street, but Internet shopping will require card readers on the PC. It doesn’t require each transaction to be validated by a central server.


 Other Possibilities

Form FillingElectronic ordering, Tax returns etc.
Remote SensingLooking at weather maps and forecasts anywhere in the world.
SurveillanceSites providing real time video images of anything from the state of the coffee machine on a college campus, the number of cars on the M25 for anyone planning a journey and anything that needs to be viewed from a distance.
Expert SystemsOn-line GPs, medical records, tax details, accountancy help, Samaritans, travel information, legal assistance etc.
PoliticsThe Internet makes instant referenda possible, but threatens the power base and centralised control as censorship is impossible — as long as information is available somewhere, routing is extremely flexible and automatically avoids blockages.
Remote WorkingChange of working practices, less need to physically move people around. People who are in the field can use comms to acquire and relay information. Great reduction on demands of transport infrastructure, lower emissions and pollution, lower enegery consumption. Paperless offices can be a reality and can work extremely well.
BankingHuge possibilities here, but will cause massive redundancies in the banking sector, nearly all transactions will be customer driven, with restrictions imposed by few senior staff with control of the system.
Inter-Enterprise CommunicationMuch work has been done by Microsoft and Lotus in enterprise-wide Email — MSMail, Lotus Notes etc. Still useful, if everyone actually makes use of it, but still missing an opportunity — Inter-Enterprise Communication makes possible higher quality interaction with suppliers and customers, and making people more accountable and customer focused, as there is a timestamped record of the communication, available for those who need to know. Companies who operate in this way can be much more efficient, and large parts of the organisation can be dispensed with as requirements and transactions can be automated. However, there seems now to be a culture shift from large and slow monolithic organisations to small, organised and highly skilled low-staffed companies or single contractors to provide solutions.
NewsNews on demand, tailor-made means of getting news that is of interest to the subscriber - make it difficult for newspapers or news providers to impose their bias on the subscriber and set agendas. News can be provided very close to the source, if not the source itself.
However, some news has to be paid for, and this can be paid for by advertising by companies that one wouldn’t happen upon intentionally, by carrying relatively unintrusive pictures and links to advertisers’ web sites, as is the case with the Electronic Telegraph.

 Downsides

 Remote Working

The Internet will force commerce to change. Already, conventional mail order in the USA is costing $3 billion a year in lost state taxes—new ways of taxation may have to be dreamed up when Internet Shopping takes off.

Perhaps the greatest threat is to the working population—successful people will continue employment by being flexible and willing to embrace new ways of thinking and working.

Technology has been displacing jobs over the last decade, but creating fewer newer ones, and by all indications this is set to increase. Many in work are working harder to keep their jobs, and are insecure and resentful. This also has the effect of preventing reemployment of the unemployed, and puts pressure on them to work harder to pay for the cost of the DSS. Ultimately, as those in work become ill from overwork, the Health Service becomes stressed, requiring more funding from the fewer people in work etc. This is a vicious cycle that must be avoided at all costs, but where will the wealth generation come from?
Working from home makes a cleaner society and can go a long way to solving traffic problems. The billions invested in offices and fixed assets can be released, as more people find they can actually work at home with a computer and modem/ISDN far more effectively than at the traditional work place. However, home working doesn’t suit everyone. It can be a problem for the employee and their family, that the employee actually works much longer hours, is more productive per hour, and usually spends the time saved by not commuting to work for the company. Indeed, it can be difficult for some not to take the laptop on holiday to finish those reports and modem them back to the workgroup. The Internet makes location-independence a reality and such benefits and freedoms are hard to ignore.

Copyright ©2003 HRA
Last Modified: 26th August 2003
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