There is an old maxim that runs: "Ask two economists for an opinion and you'll get three different points of view." Something like that applies to forecasts for the growth of electronic commerce in the coming years. There are as many forecasts as there are forecasters, perhaps more. Nevertheless there is one thing that (almost) every forecaster is agreed on. Electronic commerce is going to be big business - and it's going to be an entirely different kind of business.
The current wave of interest in electronic commerce was triggered by the emergence of the World Wide Web. Here was a potential business tool of a unique type - a system which could allow companies to market their goods and services worldwide, instantaneously, and at minimal cost. But there is even greater scope for integrating the systems which lie behind - whether in sales, ordering, inventory, customer support, maintenance, invoicing, payment, credit checking or whatever. The ultimate aim is the development of a new kind of enterprise, an enterprise which cuts across conventional boundaries of geography, mobility and organisational structure.
The European Commission sees the development of electronic commerce as instrumental in maintaining the competitive advantages of European companies and in securing the prosperity of European citizens, be they employees or consumers. To this end, electronic commerce is one of the most important focuses of the Commission's IT programme Esprit. Esprit is a continually developing programme which aims not only to spur the development of new technology solutions to business needs but also to promote the take-up of such solutions by industry - an area in which Europe has been notably weak in the past. Currently there are some 100 electronic commerce projects running with Esprit, and another 50 within its partner programme, ACTS.
The importance of electronic commerce was highlighted by the recent publication of the European Initiative in Electronic Commerce (available at http://www.cordis.lu/ esprit/src/ecomcom.htm). This identified a number of actions to be taken in the technological, industrial and legal spheres in order to promote electronic commerce. It also acted to pinpoint Europe's position on a number of issues in this area, particularly in relation to that of our closest trading partners, notably the US and Japan.
The sudden wave of interest in electronic commerce has come at a particularly opportune time for the Commission in that we are currently preparing the next phase of our overall R&D programme (of which Esprit is the current IT component), the Fifth Framework Programme - a programme that will set the priorities for Community R&D for the next five years from 1998. An idea of the importance attached to electronic commerce in the new framework programme can be gained from the fact that activities in this area are likely to form one key action among four in the overall information society theme.
ERCIM, and its national components, are already active in a number of Esprit electronic-commerce related projects. By continuing to act as a lynchpin between academia and industry in electronic commerce development, it can increase further its contribution to Europe's success in this crucial field.