Electronic Commerce: Themes of the Last Decade, and the Next
Roger Clarke

Principal, Xamax Consultancy Pty Ltd, Canberra

Visiting Fellow, Department of Computer Science, Australian National University

Version of 29 June 1997

© Xamax Consultancy Pty Ltd, 1997

Notes for the Closing Plenary Session of the 10th Bled International Electronic Commerce Conference, 11 June 1997

This paper is at http://www.anu.edu.au/people/Roger.Clarke/EC/Themes.html


The topic of the Bled Conference closing panel was set by the Chair, Don McCubbrey of the University of Denver, as the key themes of the last 10 years of Bled Electronic Commerce Conferences, and of the conferences during the coming decade. This document summarises my comments.


Looking back, these are the three important themes that I detect.

1. From Tool-Driven to Needs-Driven

The first change that I perceive to have taken place is that the old orientation was towards gee-whizzery, techno-enthusiasm, and solutions in search of problems they can be applied to. A much more mature approach is evident today, with concern that a business case be established, showing the business payback, the costs, and the risks. In some cases, particularly those involving the most revolutionary forms of business process re-engineering, social factors are also being considered, if only in the sense of consumer or public acceptance.

2. From Structured to Unstructured

The early emphasis was on structured data, especially that capable of being expressed in EDI format. Increasingly, it came to be recognised that a large proportion of the business payback arises from electronic support for unstructured data and processes, and the emphasis in practice and research has shifted accordingly.

3. From Closed to Open

For many years, solutions were based on proprietary networks, protocols and products. More recently, services are delivered using products that are moderately compatible and extensible, that are built to comply with more or less formalised standards, and that run over open networks.

Another aspect of openness is the maturation from sheer bloody-minded competition, via competition through alliance and partnership, to a recognition that competition can be usefully undertaken within a context of collaboration on infrastructure and standards.


There are many directions of development in electronic commerce theory and practice. I've picked out several that I think will be persistent over the long term, rather than just over the next 1-2 years.

1. Convergence

The notion of 'convergence' used to be about the two areas that we once called 'computing' and 'telecommunications' merging into what we currently call 'information technology'.

An additional area that is now getting caught up in the maelstrom is 'content-provision', which is a catch-all term for a range of activities including the publishing industry, 'the media' (particularly the 'broadcast' media), and education.

We are currently seeing clashes and re-alignments among the titans of computing and telecommunications, and we'll see more of these battles, as, for example, Microsoft seeks control over bodies of content, and comes into alliance and conflict with large-scale publishers and media organisations.

A further area on a convergence course with the rest of information technology in general, and with electronic commerce in particular, is robotics. This looks likely to eventually fulfil its promise to provide systems with enhanced abilities to act on their environments. Examples include automated warehousing and goods movement; remote-control gates, doors and cameras; and remote vehicle control on intelligent highways.

2. De-Stabilisation

This theme involves a couple of distinct threads. The first is the challenges that open electronic commerce poses to established organisations, including and especially major corporations. This can be most readily characterised as 'more markets than hierarchies'. The increased 'market reach' of organisations inevitably means increased market depth, and greater competitiveness among sellers goves rise to greater advantages for buyers. Increased information symmetry also works to their advantage. Hence there is a shift of power along the value-adding chain.

This shift will, of course, be resisted through the use of the large organisations' remaining market power, including their friendliness with and influence over governments. This will inevitably result in compromises of the notions of fair play (referred to in various cultures as anti-trust, monopoly, and market dominance).

The de-stabilisation theme also pervades governments. Business, especially in digital goods and services, is increasingly extra-jurisdictional and now even supra-jurisdictional, in the sense that it can take place in locations outside any established geographical area. This lowers the threshold at which tax-arbitrage and regulatory arbitrage can be conducted, and hence not just multinational corporations and wealthy individuals, but also small companies and middle-class people, will be able to arrange their affairs to avoid onerous responsibilities.

This represents an unavoidable reduction in the tax-base, and a serious compromise to the ability of governments to sustain high levels of transfer payments and services. It also implies an inevitable shifting of taxation towards things that aren't mobile across jurisdictional boundaries, which means to some extent commerce in physical goods and services, but especially real property, and middle- and lower-class workers.

3. Surveillance

There are multiple strands to this theme as well. One is a natural extension of the de-stabilisation of government: governments will seek to subject to monitoring both corporations, and especially individuals (who are less powerful), in order to discourage non-compliance with revenue and other regulatory laws, and to detect and deal with transgressions.

These increases in surveillance will be resisted, and the social distance between governments and the governed will increase. This may result in further serious de-stabilisation in many societies.

Employers in both the public and private sectors are taking advantage of technology to intrude into their employees' behaviour. Surveillance cameras, and email monitoring are two examples. This also threatens relationships.

Perhaps most apparently, consumer marketing organisations are greeting Internet-based electronic commerce with enthusiasm. Email addresses are perceived as public property, e-lists are being treated as channels for unsolicited promotional materials, cookies are being appropriated to the task of gathering information about web-surfers' interests and style into consumer profiles, data about individuals is being merged with geodemographics, and the user-pull configuration of the world-wide web is being subverted, and adapted towards a push-technology.

The greater intrusiveness of agencies and corporations alike means that either people will buckle under and accept substantially decreased privacy and greater transparency, or the links between people and organisations will be highly distrustful and adversarial.


With the excitement that surrounds electronic commerce generally, this seems like a downbeat note to end on; and particularly so when the conference venue is a country that's enjoying freedom denied to it for so long.

But the simple fact is that electronic commerce technologies are powerful, and not only promising, but also threatening.


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Created: 11 June 1997

Last Amended: 29 June 1997

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