Issues in Internet Commerce: The MerseyWorld Virtual Business Park
by Colin Charlton, Bernard Friery and Paul Leng
As in the rest of the world, electronic commerce in the UK is as yet growing only slowly in relation to the growth of the Internet and the World Wide Web. A 1997 survey by KPMG found that electronic commerce accounts for only 3% of UK sales. It is clear, however, that this will change: already, two-thirds of the businesses surveyed are making some use of electronic commerce in their business, and sales are expected to reach 20% by the year 2000.
The factors reported as obstacles to progress in this direction are of interest. The architecture of systems of electronic commerce is still under development, and issues of security of electronic communications and transactions are currently of concern, although the expectation of potential users is that these problems will be overcome. Perhaps unsurprisingly, in this and other areas, much of the UK research is industry-led and often supported by European Union sources. The ESPRIT E2S project, End-to-End Security, is aimed at delivering the infrastructure for Internet electronic commerce, and has a major involvement from Hewlett-Packard's Bristol Laboratories and from other UK concerns. An EPSRC LINK programme on Security and Privacy in Electronic Commerce is also planned. The ACTS-funded COBRA project (see article in this issue), which also has a major UK involvement, aims to create an open architecture for distributed on-line resources brokerage, and to demonstrate applications of this. Other EPSRC programmes relevant to the infrastructure of electronic commerce include those on Distributed Information Management and on Multimedia and Networking.
A more significant factor inhibiting growth, perhaps, is the current shortage of in-house expertise to exploit the technology. This is related to a perennial British problem: the lack of investment to take advantage of a new opportunity. A number of projects aim to address these issues via technology transfer and pump-priming initiatives to assist business take-up. An example is the BT supported electronic commerce Innovation Centre based at The University of Wales, Cardiff.
At Liverpool, European Regional Development funding has enabled the establishment of the CONNECT Centre, also supported by a number of industry sources, and based at the Liverpool University's Department of Computer Science. In addition to an extensive technology transfer programme, CONNECT has established a regional Web site, MerseyWorld, for the Liverpool region, and within this a virtual business park and shopping mall. The aim is twofold: to assist local businesses in early adoption of the technology, and to provide a platform on which to base research and development of the issues arising. A particular aspect of this is research into the organisation and management of an integrated web site for electronic commerce, in which participating organisations have autonomy within a common framework. Issues include the effect on accessibility of position within the structure, strategies for promoting visibility, and problems of site restructuring. Information on CONNECT is available on the Web: http://www.connect.org.uk/
Paul Leng - University of Liverpool
Tel: +44 151 794 3673