This document explores some of the ways in which representation appears in e-commerce.
The 1990s saw the availability of affordable desktop computers combined with the emergence of Microsoft's Windows as the dominant operating system. Its point-and-click graphical interface utilised a set of universally understandable icons to represent tasks such as file management and printing. Around the same time the World Wide Web (WWW) started to become the familiar face of the Internet. The WWW allows hypertext, graphics, animation, sound and video to be accessed globally using software known as a browser, the first of which (MOSAIC) was developed at NCSA in 1992 [Encyclopaedia Britannica; Encarta Encyclopedia; The Computer Museum History Center;].
Matthew Gray, of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, estimated there were a mere 130 web sites in June 1993, which had risen to 650,000 by January 1997. Leading search engine Google now claims to index 1,247,340,000 web pages. Global Reach placed the worldwide number of Internet users at 369,400,000 in Sept 2000. The Electronic Telegraph [4 July 2000, 10 million are now on Internet at home] quoted a survey by MMXI Europe in July 2000, which found that nearly one in five people in Britain uses the Internet from home. Many more have access to the 'net at work or school, or from public libraries and Cybercafes.
The academic origins of the web created a non-commercial ethos in which information was made freely available. Indeed, a vast amount of valuable content remains free including daily newspapers such as The Times and the entire contents of the Encyclopaedia Britannica. However, as Cyberspace grew so did its exploitation for commercial purposes
3. Benefits & Problems
Cyberspace means businesses are no longer limited by geography, they have a potential worldwide audience of over 300 million, which is growing daily. Savings in overheads will be made as retail outlets and office space become redundant. Many more workers will be freed from the daily drudgery of commuting as home working becomes widespread. The new medium provides unprecedented opportunity for small operators. David B. Whittle writes "The web site of a small company fills just as much of an individual's screen as the Web site of a multi-national conglomerate". 'Net shapers such as Yahoo, Netscape and even Microsoft all started small.
The biggest obstacle to growth in e-commerce is concern over the security of online payments. Consumers who would happily mail their credit card number, read it down a telephone line or even hand it across a bar hesitate before typing it into a browser screen. News reports of hacker attacks on 'net giants such as Yahoo [Electronic Telegraph, 10 February 2000, Hackers cripple web sites with 'junk' messages] and Microsoft [Electronic Telegraph, 28 October 2000, Microsoft humiliated as hackers crack Windows] intensify such fears.
E-commerce currently offers secure server and encryption technology as a
solution to the security risks associated with transmitting data through
Cyberspace. Encryption is a representation of information in a form such that
only the intended recipient can interpret it. The commonly used public key
encryption involves two keys for each user; a public one, made freely available,
and a private one known only to the user. Sensitive information (e.g. a credit
card number) is encoded using the intended recipient's public key before
transmission, even if intercepted by a hacker it is thus useless without the
corresponding private key [Whittle pp
99-103]. Secure web sites are represented to the user by a padlock icon in the
This may account for why only an estimated 2.7% of new-car sales in America in 1999 took place over the Internet while as many as 40% involved the 'net at some point, e.g. for information gathering [Economist.com, 24 February 2000, Define and sell]. The consequence may be an increase in manufacturer's showrooms, such as the Sony Centre in Tokyo, where visitors can peruse, but not purchase, the company's latest gadgetry.
Advances in virtual reality capabilities will permit more realistic representations of products to be presented. Already estate agents are able to provide virtual walk-throughs of properties. Avatar technology will provide users with a physical representation in Cyberspace that could be used, for example, to try on clothes in virtual boutiques.
The ease with which individuals may represent themselves misleadingly also gives cause for concern. Before entering a credit card number consumers demand reassurance they are dealing with a legitimate supplier that will meet its side of the bargain rather than a geeky adolescent running a scam from his bedroom.
The largely academic roots of Cyberspace meant advertising on the net was initially viewed with suspicion. In 1994 two Arizona lawyers, Laurence Canter and Martha Siegal, posted advertisements to a large number of newsgroups offering legal help to foreigners seeking U.S. work permits. Their act caused outrage, resulting in thousands of complaints including death threats. Since then attitudes have changed with most users accepting most forms of 'net advertising as a means of paying for the huge amount of valuable free content available, just as television advertising pays for programmes.
Corporate websites are advertisements, but those receiving most visits offer valuable content alongside the sales pitch e.g. a supermarket providing free recipes. Whittle predicts a blurring of the distinction between information and advertising in Cyberspace along with users being able to determine what kind(s) of advertising they are subjected to.
The most controversial form of Cyber advertising is spam, the e-mail equivalent of direct (junk) mail. The 'net makes it easy and cheap for advertisers to mail millions of recipients. Programs trawl Cyberspace collecting e-mail addresses, which are traded on huge lists. The result is that anyone who has published his e-mail address is bombarded with worthless messages like:
to quote a few examples from my own mailbox. Every such message has to be transmitted and then downloaded before it can be discarded, given the number of recipients that implies a huge amount of wasted time. Many e-mail services such as Yahoo and Hotmail offer "filters" to automatically delete such messages.
5. Case Studies
Amazon backs up its excellent Cyber-presence with a reputation for fulfilment and delivery. Whilst it is not the cheapest e-tailer, according to the Economist [24 February 2000, Amazon's amazing ambition] 66% of its sales go to repeat customers .
E-commerce is an ideal vehicle for home shopping. Two major U.K. supermarkets that have implemented online ordering/delivery services are Sainsbury's and Tesco. In my opinion Tesco's site is superior to Sainsbury's.
Both companies require customers to register and to use a customer number and password to access their sites. Every time a user logs into Sainsbury's a message appears stating that it will take a few minutes for the shop to load. Eventually the user is asked to select a delivery time from a table with unavailable time slots filled in a darker colour. In the example used to research this paper the entire week was unavailable (i.e. the user had to click again to display the following week). This representation provides the user with a negative image by graphically illustrating what the company cannot do.
Both companies organize their product ranges hierarchically. Sainsbury's provides a top-level alphabetical menu down the left-hand side of the screen. Selecting an item "opens" it, revealing a more detailed sub-menu. Selecting sub-menu items displays a product list in the main part of the screen. On a typical home user's display of resolution 800x600 only five products can be displayed at a time, making comparison difficult.
Tesco's shopping page loads within a few seconds of logging in. Its hierarchy has four levels giving a closer representation of a real supermarket, i.e. departments, aisles, shelves and products. The aisle, department and shelf menus are permanently displayed, clearly indicating the user's position in the hierarchy (store). Tesco helpfully keeps customers informed of the contents of their trolley and the total cost by means of a frame located in the bottom left. On an 800x600 display the site is capable of displaying eight items a screen. Upon checking out the user is presented with a choice of available delivery slots beginning from the following day. Unavailable slots are not displayed.
Cyberspace promises to liberate business, consumers and workers alike. The momentum acquired thus far is likely to inspire innovative solutions to remaining problems such as security issues and representational difficulties.
Cyberspace A term first coined by sci-fi writer William Gibson in his novel Neuromancer, it is commonly used synonymously with the Internet.
e-tailer A retailer trading wholly or partly through e-commerce.
Hypertext Text containing words or phrases which, when clicked,
take the user to another part of the document or open a new document, display a
picture, play a sound etc.
Java applet A program written in Java which can be incorporated into web pages and run on computers of almost any type to provide animation and other fancy features.
Plug-in A small program designed to add specialised functionality to a larger one, e.g. an MP3 (sound) player for a web browser.
All information correct and links valid at time of writing, Dec