Guest column: A look at I-commerce from 1998 to 2002

New Year's Day, 2003: As I sit in my Web-enabled, ergonomically correct armchair, with its magnetically-levitating suspension system and trendy hemp upholstery, dictating my 269th column to the interactive armrest, I'm amazed at how far we've come since 1998.

E-commerce, e-business, I-commerce, Netbiz -- whatever it has been called over the years, doing business online has certainly changed the world.

-- 1998: This was the year that commerce over the Internet really took off. Companies rushed to get wired with their business partners and their customers, while consumers left behind their fears of credit card fraud and making purchases online.

-- 1999: The biggest news of the year was Bill's resignation -- I speak of Bill Gates, of course. Under the pressure of the antitrust trial, Gates retired from what was then called Microsoft, but not before he split it into four pieces.

These four companies were MSN, an Internet service which was eventually acquired by America Online; Microsoft.org, an ostensibly non-profit organisation devoted to promoting Windows as an open-source operating system; MicroOffice, a software vendor selling desktop and back-office software for Windows; and MicroCosm, a consumer electronics and entertainment company.

Ironically, as a major stakeholder in these companies, Gates would grow far richer in retirement than he ever had as chairman.

-- 2000: After a week or two of hysteria surrounding the so-called "Y2K crisis," society finally settled down enough to notice that the actual effects of the date change were minimal. Computer systems were repaired, the Dow Jones Industrial rose back above 10,000, and cities that had experienced riots returned to normal.

Later that year, the World Wide Web Consortium approved the Universal Business Standard, which standardised the encoding of product descriptions and business practices in XML. Now companies could more easily engage in free trade over the Internet -- and integrate their disparate business systems.

That year also saw the proliferation of HandSpring's Shopping Pad, a handheld, wireless, online shopping device. It produced a slew of imitators, such as MicroCosm's Pad-Sized Shopping Device and Sony's ShopMan.

-- 2001: After an acquisition spree that included e-commerce stalwarts Amazon.com and eBay, AOL announced it was merging with Wal-Mart Stores. The combined company, WalOL, controlled more than 50 percent of consumer sales on and offline.

Meanwhile, helped by the rise in outsourcing of corporate IT functions, Oracle finally became the world's largest software company. The key was Oracle's Total Outsourcing Infrastructure, an OS-less server framework that enabled service providers to rent front- and back-office applications to their customers via the Internet. To celebrate, Oracle chairman Larry Ellison erected a 750-foot obelisk in downtown San Francisco.

-- 2002: While WalOL was saddled with antitrust investigations, MicroCosm acquired the three largest media companies: Fox, The Oprah Channel, and Pixar.

And that's how, today, I can dictate this column to you from a MicroCosm armchair, using a MicroOffice voice processor running on a remote Oracle server, while connected to the Net through WalOL. When I'm done, I'm going to download the holographic, immersive version of "A Bug's Life VII."

What do you see from your MicroCosm armchair? Write to me at dylan@infoworld.com.

Dylan Tweney has been covering the Internet since 1993. He is the Intranets & I-Commerce section editor.

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More about: Amazon.com, America Online, AOL, Consumer Electronics, Dow Jones, eBay, Handspring, Microsoft, MSN, Oracle, Pixar, Sony, Wal-Mart, World Wide Web Consortium
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