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The Web and Internet Today

The Internet is not the first medium of mass communication. That came with the invention of the printing press, aided by widespread education. Radio and television followed. What differentiates the Internet from its predecessors is not only the sheer convenience of having such a vast range of resources (leading search engine Google claimed to index over 1 trillion - 1,000,000,000,000 - unique URLs in July 2008 with the number of individual web pages growing by several billion pages per day!) available on demand from one's desktop, but also the ease with which content consumers may become content providers.

Internet World Stats estimated 1.46 billion people, some 22% of the world's population, had Internet access as of June 2008. There can now be few in the developed world who do not have access to Internet-connected computers at home, work, or through facilities such as public libraries and cybercafes. It cannot, however, be said that this applies to humanity in its entirety, as shall be discussed further under the heading of the digital divide.

Non-Commercialism

The governmental and academic (i.e. non-commercial) origins of the Internet continue to have an important impact on its nature and development. Most users have become familiar with the availability of a vast quantity of free, quality content. Such expectations represent a significant barrier for those seeking to charge for access to their Internet-based content.

The "Information Age" has spawned a new dawn of altruism. Sites such as Wikipedia, increasingly being recognized as an authoritative source, are generated and maintained entirely by the input of numerous volunteers. The open source software movement, responsible for the Linux operating system, Apache Web server, and Firefox browser among many others, is similarly driven by the work of volunteers.

As such, to profit from the Internet requires a concept of sufficient quality and uniqueness that is in demand by sufficient numbers.

The Changing Business Environment

For the consumer the Internet provides an environment of near perfect competition in which prices from many suppliers can be compared within seconds. Leading IT business consultant Robin Bloor [the electronic b@zaar; Nicholas Brealey Publishing 2000] predicts that "Arbitrage will become a fact of life in the electronic economy. Nowhere will artificially high prices be sustainable". Numerous sites such as Shopper.comDealTime and mySimon already enable consumers to find the best online deal for whatever they want - free of charge. The implication is that whilst transit and delivery charges for physical goods will still apply (for digitizable products physical distance becomes irrelevant) consumers will generally get a better deal as a result of increased, global, competition. Since suppliers will be forced to lower their charges to remain competitive they will be forced to innovate in other ways, e.g. service standards or other forms of added value, in order to win and retain market share.

For the elderly, disabled or those simply short of time, e-commerce offers the convenience of goods being ordered online and delivered to their doorstep.

e-commerce increases the variety of ways in which business may be transacted. The use of auction has become increasingly common with sites such as eBay permitting anyone to auction anything in a variety of auction styles. An interesting variation is provided by Priceline.com, where customers enter the price they are willing to pay for air tickets, the company then surveys the major airlines to find if one is willing to sell at that price. These alternative business methods would not be possible without the real-time information sharing capabilities of the Internet.

Agents

Agents are intelligent computer programs which are able to represent the interests of, and act on behalf of, their human owners. DealTime and mySimon are examples of a form of agent called the shopbot. Given a user's requirements they are able to enquire of many suppliers and so recommend the best deal. A further type of agent, the pricebot, is described by Kephart et al. as one which adjusts "prices automatically on the seller's behalf in response to changing market conditions". Books.com is quoted as an example, it uses an agent to slightly undercut the prices of its leading competitors. Bloor reports that "some web sites have chosen to bar access to the robots that obtain comparison prices". He describes this as foolish and likens it to "turning customers away".

The Information Economies group at IBM research carries out simulations using agents programmed with various strategies. The work is described by Kephart et al. who predict that over the next decade "the global economy and the Internet will merge into an information economy bustling with billions of autonomous software agents that exchange information goods and services with humans and other agents". This report also predicts a role for agents in personalized filtering and bundling of information as a response to the problem of information overload described below.

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