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Let the Internet be your oyster

By MAXIM JEAN-LOUIS While most people are optimistic that emerging technologies will provide all of us in the health sector, education, business and goverrnment with benefits, we are not so naive to think that all technology does not have its flaws.


While most people are optimistic that emerging technologies will provide all of us in the health sector, education, business and goverrnment with benefits, we are not so naive to think that all technology does not have its flaws.

The 1990s was a decade of boom and bust for many tech companies. There was a frenetic enthusiasm for almost anything that resounded of bits and bytes. The world was undergoing a paradigm shift, one which was not fully understood nor appreciated for the consequences that could result. Business investors had little track record to determine what did or did not make sense; it was like gold fever-a good strike here and there stirred everyone on to keep on looking for the next big hit. E-commerce was going to revolutionize the world. And perhaps it will, but it is more likely that this will occur over a period of time.

E-commerce is essentially a Web-based industry. The Web provides an opportunity for businesses to communicate, market, educate, and conduct transactions with greater convenience to the consumer. Business-to-business transactions over the Internet enable better sharing of information, faster service, better recordkeeping, better inventory management, better tracking and ultimately more efficient and effective operations. As hardware and software, networking and business processes become more sophisticated, more secure and more reliable, Web-based transactions will grow. And there are signs that this is happening. This past year we have seen a significant increase in sales over the Internet. StatsCanada has reported that the number of households with computers and high-speed Internet connections is increasing rapidly. We are becoming a connected Canada.

In Northern Ontario the distance to larger markets is a factor in the health of our economy. Distance is an issue for both consumers and producers. Our geography poses many challenges, but the Internet has created many opportunities. Consumers in Northern Ontario can shop for almost anything on the Internet. Delivery charges can be an issue, but over time as volume increases and as sellers determine that more and more of these charges can be absorbed, the costs will decrease. For producers in Northern Ontario the Internet can be their oyster. Their markets can now be provincial, national and even global. Of course there are obstacles and the Internet is not a panacea for an ailing business, but it does offer promise to those who can generate a business plan that makes sensible and reasonable use of this new trading vehicle.

There are many major hurdles for e-commerce. Many consumers are still concerned about using their credit cards online. Precautions need to be taken and there are many examples of large and small businesses successfully providing a secure financial transaction service online.

The Royal Bank of Canada is one such example of a major institution with, by all accounts, a very secure system. The technology exists to provide consumers with secure transactions online. In fact, the security may be greater than what is offered in less reputable stores and restaurants where your credit card is handled out of sight and by individuals who may be less than totally honest.

There are scams that we hear about being conducted over the Internet, but likely no more than we experience door-to-door. There are issues of privacy of our personal information, but there are also emerging technologies, as well as the writing of laws that are providing greater protection for individuals in all kinds of circumstances.

Perhaps one of the major hurdles for e-commerce is that our consumer culture is very tactile - we like to touch and feel the merchandise. It is unlikely that our computer technology will be able to give us a virtual experience that is akin to the real thing in the near future. On the other hand it is also very unlikely that stores will be replaced by businesses on the Internet. What is emerging is the expansion of our options. Just as the television did not replace radio, nor has the Internet replaced TV, consumers will be provided with greater choice of both product and vendor. Stores will offer consumers an opportunity to buy direct (and to feel the merchandise) or to buy online, which will offer a greater variety to choose from and perhaps lower prices.

There are significant infrastructure investments that need to be made in order for e-commerce to thrive. Our provincial and federal governments understand the need for the further development of broadband access to the Internet in all communities across Northern Ontario and Canada. We have made strides in this direction and there is more that will be done in the reasonably near future. Our businesses and industries need to invest in the appropriate infrastructure as well. And the technology providers need to be encouraged and supported to provide cheaper and better and more reliable and more secure and more private and more accessible and more user-friendly technologies. We have come a long way in a very short period of time. The future for e-commerce, and indeed, for e-learning, looks very promising.

Maxim Jean-Louis is president and chief executive officer of Contact North/Contact Nord.