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A Sober View of the Future

E-business is real and will increase its share of commercial activity for the same reasons that steam, electricity, and other technological innovations did before. But it is important to put the Internet in perspective because press coverage of this technology has bordered on the ridiculous during the second half of the 1990s—filled with exaggerations, misinformation, and insufficiently grounded in the reality of how businesses work. An historical perspective gives us a more realistic, sober set of insights on the effect of this new technology on business practices. Such a view does not suggest that we are talking about things not changing, far from it, the transformation is robust.

The Internet, and its accompanying e-business applications, can be seen as an extension of a long process that began in the nineteenth century with the invention and rapid deployment of the telegraph and its vocal successor, the telephone. The reason the telegraph became so popular in the 1800s was its ability to deliver information rapidly across vast geographic space. What might have taken weeks to communicate now took seconds. Without this technology, as historians have long pointed out, creation of efficient railroad corporations in the United States and in Europe would have been delayed or never developed in their ultimate national scope. Deployment of the telephone, like the computer chip nearly a century later, created uses that were eventually replaced with new applications. As with the telegraph before it and the computer chip after, the telephone rapidly became a powerful tool in commerce with which to communicate information quickly across wide geographies. Over time, the cost of communicating via the telephone dropped sharply, as it continues to do today. The same occurred with use of computer chips. Thus, the telecommunications technologies of the past 150 years enhanced the ability of managers to extend their flow of information and simultaneously increased their ability to control commercial activities, most notably operations of corporations. In each instance in the evolution of telecommunications technologies, new technical enhancements were bolted onto existing organizations and, in time, people learned what to do with them and found new uses for these gizmos. Users enhanced them through diversity of application, improved their efficiency or caused their manufacturers to do that, and both trends opened up new business opportunities.


  

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