ERCIM News No.30 - July 1997

Electronic Commerce ­ A New Challenge for ERCIM

by Christine Vanoirbeek

The globalisation of the market place, started in the last decade and in full expansion due to the explosion of new Information and Communication Technology (ICT), is the source of a major change in our society. In particular, the domain of electronic commerce is at the centre of innovative developments, which though still in infancy will play an important role in the creation of the information society of tomorrow.

Thanks to the advent of the World Wide Web, the use of Internet, formerly the privilege of a restricted community of researchers, became the vehicle of a new digital information society. The 'Global Information Infrastructure' is a reality. It is progressively and incontestably transforming the everyday life of people over the planet, fundamentally affecting the traditional concepts of political, social and economic relations.

The dramatic growth of the World Wide Web is due in a large part to the increasing presence of Web commerce. Under worldwide governmental pressure, an enticing picture has been painted of the advantages to be taken from new Information and Communication Technologies in the realization of the emerging concept of electronic commerce.

A large variety of initiatives and R&D projects have been undertaken dealing with the multiple and non-independent components of electronic commerce. The first two papers of this issue give an overview of research activities and current trends at a European level. Other ones provide descriptions of running projects that bear ERCIM member institutes' involvement and active participation in this strategic domain. Those examples, though not exhaustive, address most of the key aspects of electronic commerce, such as secure communications, transactions and banking, development of electronic payment systems, definition of new business models to improve interactions and collaborative work between actors on the market place and, legal issues.

Despite all the efforts and the bold predictions, a recent survey published in The Economist ( reports that the current situation of global electronic market appears to be still far from the electronic commerce dream.

However, such an appraisal is not a failure report; it simply relates the results of early experimentation of a very innovative concept whose predictable effectiveness was very hazardous. Several factors explain this situation. The obligation, for trading partners, to be present on the cyberspace has rapidly became a kind of 'obligation' more for marketing skilled competences and not for taking advantage of new communication capabilities. Consumer shopping, even predicted as an appealing market is only partially living up to these expectations, contrary to business-to-business activities who already work in a decentralized way, largely using fax, phone, post or private electronic links. Another underestimated phenomena concerns the presence of outsiders on the market place, taking profit from the World Wide Web opportunity to benefit from their work and skills and providing tough competition to the giant corporations already established in the traditional market place.

In summary, industry's definition of electronic commerce has been revealed to be too narrow, assuming that electronic business works like the real word. The potential use of new ICT has not yet been really exploited and requires time to be realized.

Further developments in electronic commerce depend on many factors: innovation in the fields of technology ­ especially computer software, computer hardware and telecommunication ­ recognition and acceptance of a legal framework supporting international commercial transactions over the Internet, and elaboration and use of standards for various purposes such as electronic payment and information reuse.

The business revolution is happening. More than ever, conducting business on the Internet remains a fascinating and challenging task to be addressed. ERCIM intends to participate actively in the movement and, to this end, is currently starting a new working group dedicated to various aspects of Electronic Commerce.

Please contact:
Christine Vanoirbeek ­ Swiss Federal Institute of Technology
Tel: +41 21 693 25 75

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