Net benefits require past knowledge.

History has a habit of repeating itself, or so the adage goes. Industry analysts are congregating in their covens and trying to establish the future of e-business. We of course are being asked to make yet more investment in our IT systems. Are we wise to do this or will the commercial use of the internet be a flop like so many technologies before it?

In the 1960s and 1970s the mainframe and mini ruled the day. Dumb terminals, or ‘thin clients’ sat on our ‘desktops’ with large central servers. This produced a reliable and secure environment to work in.

The first generation of PCs emerged in the 1980s. Operating under DOS or the MAC environment, these systems offered the first taste of the mass-market applications such as spreadsheets and word processing. Individuals obtained some great quick wins using these applications and enjoyed the benefits of being one of millions of users.

Then came the Windows revolution. Promising computing that was easy to use, cheap and reliable, the opposite was actually delivered. The 90s was a decade when we had to endure countless system failures and endless upgrades. ‘Rebooting’ became part of our everyday lives. ERP vendors emerged, promising a solution to our system problems. In fact they delivered products that took forever to implement and costs that went way over budget.

The top accountancy/consultancy practices extracted billions of dollars from our coffers, often on the back of referrals from their audit colleagues.

IT salespeople grew as a new breed of rogues, promising whatever was in the client’s dreams and walking off with a fat commission cheque. Many of these then set up dotcom businesses, which are busily going bust today.

To predict the future for e-business we need to learn from the past.

From a technology perspective there is some comfort as the internet model is closer to the mainframe and mini than the PC. ‘Thin clients’ combined with powerful central servers would seem like the right technology model for the future.

From an application perspective there are undoubtedly going to be some major blind alleys that buyers will head down. Those projects that require wide-scale change of systems and processes in a short period of time are highly likely to fail as the ERP implementations have before.

However the internet has emerged as a technology for the masses. This will open up a huge range of new opportunities for us to develop the way we work as the PC revolution has already done.

And this time round though we will have to manage the process of buying and making change happen very differently if we are going to get the benefits of our investment.

– John Tate is chairman of e-business consultancy Tate Bramald. ?:

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