In an astonishingly short time, the dominant model for business on the Internet has become the public World Wide Web. Sixteen years ago, things were not so clearcut. The Internet originally was seen as a mode of communication for transferring information and files, not a place to conduct direct business, such as sales or advertising. As often happens, an academic organization, European Particle Physics Laboratory (more commonly known as CERN), changed everything with its seminal development of the World Wide Web in 1989. The principle goal of CERN was to put graphics and hypertext online to expand research and educational usage of the Internet. What they perhaps did not realize was that pictures and hypertext--as live linkages to other Web pages--were the first two ingredients necessary to bring commerce to the Web.
The rest, as they say, is history. Soon everyone and their brother's cousin's aunt had to have a Web site in order to be a happening, cutting-edge enterprise. The dot-com boom of the '90s was on. Sites were born and died in rapid, gaudy succession, and only after many casualties did people begin to ask the question, "How do we make money at this?"
Two major forms of Web site emerged from the chaos of the late '90s as the strongest examples of e-biz: company sites and the new breed of online retailers, such as eBay and Amazon.com. Both kinds of sites are old hat now, as familiar to us as the old Sears & Roebuck catalog was to our parents. But what about e-biz applications that don't rely on hypertext Web pages?
The Workplace Client Model
Removed from the frenzied Darwinian environment of the World Wide Web, quiet development has been proceeding on other e-biz uses of the Internet. Chief among these has been the Workplace Client model, as typified by IBM's product by that name. Workplace clients work by inverting the usual order of hardware connections used to access the Internet. Commonly, users log on to a remote server of an Internet Service Provider (ISP), using a desktop PC, laptop, or PDA. The server in turn routs the user through cyberspace to his destination, such as the URL of a business Web site.
In a workplace client situation, users have simple terminal connections to an internal server, such as might be used in an intra-office network. They can still get out to the Internet, but access is controlled (and protected) by the company's own security protocols. To make a traffic analogy, normal Internet access is like a highway, with individual drivers speeding around, changing lanes, and taking whatever offramp strikes their fancy. Workplace client users resemble passengers on a bus. They're in the flow of traffic, but their course and mobility is controlled by the bus driver.
There are a number of sound reasons for structuring business Internet access this way. The first and foremost reason is security. Individual users accessing the Internet are only as safe as each person's vigilance--and scruples. Hackers, spammers, and phishers cluster thickly around any potential source of money online. From management's point of view, idle employees browsing blogs, game sites, and such are a drain on productivity. These activities are all curtailed by the workplace client system. Intruders are barred by firewalls and encryption. Loafers are deterred by the knowledge that every site they visit is logged by the boss, but the model has evolved beyond cyberspace prophylaxis to become an active e-biz system too.
The protected corridors of a workplace client system (more broadly called an intranet, or in some circumstances, an extranet) allow swift and unfettered communication with business contacts. Among the benefits are these:
- Quick user response for time-sensitive operations
- Real-time data transfer and corroboration
- Strong security in the form of encrypted data storage, the so-called "walled garden" effect
- Easy integration of common desktop software
- Ability to support different operating systems and client devices, from mainframes all the way down to text messaging via cell phones
For companies that do business with each other, or even think they might do business, it is a simple matter to share a fast and secure extranet connection. Such links are often called "tunnels" because they burrow through the warp and weft of the open Internet, using the same communications network but remaining closed and secure.
In one case study, the Mesotec corporation was able to boost sales through broad implementation of workplace client techniques. Makers of precision tooling components for the aeronautical and electronics industries, Mesotec sells to other companies and to government. By establishing tunnels to perspective clients, the company was able to open and accept bids, hold online conferences with clients, issue update information, and so on--without problems of bandwidth, data loss, or outside snooping. Paper invoices have become obsolete at Mesotec, and Accounts Receivable has a powerful tool for collecting payments. Communication is immediate and sure, and payment transfers can be made swiftly and surely via pre-established tunnels. One estimate found Mesotec's sales increased 40% in two years after installing specialized workplace client tools. Surprisingly, Mesotec does not even maintain an open public Web site.
The Virtual IT Department
Other e-biz possibilities include the "virtual IT department." In this model, extranet systems are used to connect a company without IT capability to a company that provides exactly the services required--a powerful example of telecommuting an entire expensive department. Imagine the savings to a small company. All forms of IT service are handled remotely (yet instantly) via secure workplace connections. Of course, outsourcing IT services is not new. How many times has it been painfully obvious that a company Web site you're trying to access is down (or gone completely) because of a failure of the outsourcer but not the client? Workplace client systems avoid this serious problem by connecting a company intranet to the virtual IT department by an extranet link. Now there's no rat's nest of routing to add complication to the connection. The link is direct and secure.
It's clear workplace client systems are best suited to B2B applications. Can they work for ordinary users, in retail situations? In some cases, yes. I have seen terminals in chain retail stores, connected via dedicated extranet to the company's retail center. If you can't find the DVD, dishwasher, obscure book, or software package you want in the store, you can order it directly with a few clicks and have it shipped to the store or your home. What could be simpler? This kind of workplace retail application, I predict, will proliferate in the future.
What's in Our Future?
As long the current system of independent PCs predominates at home and at work, the spread of extranet technology will be hampered. The time may come when identity theft, spam, and marauding viruses render the open Internet so hazardous for commerce that the extranet model will dominate ebiz in the future--and perhaps even save it.
Paul Thompson is a freelance writer and novelist living in Chapel Hill, North Carolina.