Electronic Commerce: Why is the Internet different from other computer and network technologies?
Computers and networks are nothing new. They have existed and business applications such as LAN and EDI are well established long before the World Wide Web took over. Then, why is the sudden talk of the Digital Age and the advance of electronic commerce?
Two things make the Internet quite different from any other existing communications media. Unlike broadcasting media, the Internet
(1) allows two-way communications, and
(2) is built around open standards.
A two-way communication means targeting audience and the possibility of feedback. Broadcasting sends out messages to "no one in particular" and without knowing quite who has gotten the message. (What do Nielson and a horde of market research firms do for their living?) An open standard (e.g. TCP/IP) means interoperability and the advantage of a large market and the possibility of integrating one product or process with another.
Both of these characteristics are being challenged.
I. To the WebTV generation, the digital future looks like another version of the passive one-way broadcasting. The "new media" sums up how publishers and media companies view the digital medium. We are so accustomed to "receiving random messages" that we often forget the fact that broadcasting was a 20th century phenomenon. Even "interactive television" envisioned by today's media is a way of providing a more lively entertainment, offering more information "related to existing contents" (e.g. detailed information about characters, plots, and commercials shown on TV). Multichannel, digital TV broadcasting may very well be a model for future entertainment, but it needs to be remembered that it is only one application of the digital communications network.
II. The commercialization of the Internet is forcing businesses to differentiate their products from others by making products incompatible. Unlike the public Internet where standards were open, firms attempt to capture and dominate the market with their proprietary products. In such an environment, TCP/IP would have had a very slim chance of becoming a standard and opening up the digital, networked economy. Whether markets driven by private interests can bring about a better result (e.g., more efficient, technologically superior, etc. system) is still a concern left for arguments.
Perhaps telephone networks are quite similar to the Internet (and indeed most Internet traffic goes through telephone networks). But unlike telephones, the Internet's user interface (computers) is much more sophisticated and flexible. Because of its beginning as a public research network, the Internet has no pricing regime of telephone companies. The world-wide connection, then, may be considered to have been an accident. When usage-based, long-distance charges are implemented, the Internet may look quite similar to the telephone network.