E-commerce tools may soon identify, direct, and fulfill customer needs

What trends are shaping the future of e-commerce? Bob Weinstein doesn't have a crystal ball, but he does have a line on three possibilities: intelligent agents, streaming media, and online decision support tools. See how these pieces fit together in this week's Tech Watch.

Over the next few weeks, Tech Watch will be contemplating the future. Powerful opinions based upon experience will be batted around. There is no right or wrong, only compelling conjecture. I encourage you to form your own conclusions. My goal is to excite you with new ideas. I'm just as curious about the future as you are.
What lies ahead? Frederick J. Riggins, assistant professor of information technology management at the DuPree College of Management at Georgia Tech, says that the career action in e-commerce can be confined to three trends.

#1: Intelligent agents (IA) will permeate our lives in three to five years, making everything users do more efficient.
“IAs are software programs that will probably reside on your hard drive or Web server,” Riggins explains. "The program will be your own personal ‘agent,’ mastering your likes and dislikes (using artificial intelligence) from a profile of yourself.”

Early attempts to create IAs include Microsoft’s “Firefly,” which asks users to fill out a profile about their preferences.

“If you visited a 'Firefly-enabled' online storefront, it would reconfigure itself to your personal desires,” says Riggins. “It would know your favorite authors, brands of merchandise, birth date or anniversary, and personal things, like your wife’s favorite flower, color, or perfume.”

Agents find the best buys for users before they remember that they need something. Forget to stock up the refrigerator for a holiday weekend? The IA will order groceries automatically and have them delivered via the online grocer. IAs routinely frequent sites that users often visit and inform users of changes or tell them when there is something new (such as a product or sale) that they should know about.

Intelligent agents can be bought and installed in the same way that you’d install any software, according to Riggins.
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#2. We’ll see an explosion of streaming media applications, such as video streaming.
Streaming media is already here—and in another year, the technology will be commonplace, according to Riggins. “The exciting part is we’ll be able to create new multimedia information products and presentations for strategic gain,” he says. “ZDTV, for one, is moving in this direction by having a Web site full of video clips from their TV shows, links to Web sites of interest, etc. It’s the best way to get to video-on-demand, which will create a whole new form of online advertising where consumers simply click to view a short video describing a product.”

#3: Online decision support tools, much like the ones online brokerage services are starting to offer, will become available soon.
“The idea is to make the user a more effective decision maker,” says Riggins. “Users will do what-if scenarios before making a purchase to configure the product just the way they want it. They might do what-if scenarios with utility companies resulting in personalized advice for energy savings in their home, etc.”

With so much free information available, where is the competitive advantage? “The advantage is not in the information, but in the proprietary models running at the back end of the online decision support system,” adds Riggins. “That is how the firm[s] will leverage their expertise. Also, they will be able to show, based on the parameters of your individual situation, the benefits you would receive if you bought the product[s].” These new tools will be available next year.

Putting the pieces together
Summing up, the intelligent agent will direct users seamlessly to a site to see products; the multimedia presentation will strategically bundle the package of information in an engaging way; and the online decision support tool will effectively convince the person to buy.

What skills will be needed to take advantage of these trends? Technical tools to program the agents and scripts, visual interface skills to put together engaging multimedia presentations, and business insight to know where to apply each of these trends to create personalized, interactive experiences for the user and to result in a sale.

For more information, check out colleges with e-commerce programs, such as Purdue, Carnegie Mellon, Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), Georgia Institute of Technology, University of Texas at Austin, and the University of California at Berkeley. Riggins also suggests exploring Georgia Tech's Center for Electronic Commerce Web site for its links to 20 additional sites.

Bob Weinstein's weekly syndicated column, Tech Watch, is the first career column covering the exploding technology marketplace. It appears in major daily newspapers throughout the U.S.

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