The potential of e-commerce in Europe is being stifled by vested interests in the Internet industry. Easy access is needed to bypass the bottlenecks, says Robert Metcalfe.

It was not until 1990 that the World Wide Web was invented in the heart of Europe, at Cern in Switzerland. But in the past five years the Internet has exploded with 120 million users worldwide. By the year 2000 these numbers could swell to over a billion.

Is Europe, or for that matter the Internet itself, capable of coping with these expanded numbers? Three areas of vested interests – the Internet service providers (ISPs), the telcos (telecommunications companies) and the browser developers – stand in the way of any changes.

The first bottleneck to go will be domain names, as we know them. Supremely inefficient, they make it difficult to search and find Websites.

Domain names are sold by ISPs, of which there are over 4,000 in Europe. But the poor co-operation between them and the Internet’s fragile architecture are behind the Internet crashes that we experience.

ISPs’ margins are being eroded, and many are not financially viable. And as bottleneck providers they do little to alleviate user frustration. We need more intelligent search engines, whereby one will simply type in a company name and go straight to the site.

Dial-up telephone modems incur the real costs for the consumer. These modems deliver the worst of both worlds by cramming data packets through voice switches. They are, in technology terms, an abomination, though highly profitable for telecoms companies, which exploit online users with inappropriately high connection costs. Europe should opt for DSL – digital subscriber lines – as they have the greatest potential, short-term, for bypassing voice switches and deliver continuous, multimegabit packet access to the Internet for the consumer.

The third barrier to e-commerce lies in the battle of the browsers. Whoever owns the operating system may well inherit the Internet, but the battle is not yet won. Netscape has ceded to Microsoft, a later entrant, but Sun Microsystems’ Java is designed to exploit multimedia elements on the Net. The resulting confusion is yet another turn-off. Overhyped or not, the Internet is here to stay. Europe must make a stand against these vested interests to deliver more cost-effective online connections and a more powerful Internet architecture to drive e-commerce efficiently in Europe.

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