A new technology can be slow to reveal its full potential. Rail, for instance, revolutionized the coal industry many years before its promise of mass public transport and universal postage was fulfilled. The history of broadcasting likewise reveals a pioneering phase when the new invention was perceived primarily for its usefulness to existing organizations: it finally allowed shipping companies to communicate with their fleets at sea. The radical concept of a home entertainment industry took two decades to emerge. More recently, hardware that enabled computers to communicate with each other was seen by its developers as an important contribution to US defence systems. Only when the World Wide Web was launched a quarter of a century later did the full potency of their work become discernible. Now we are witnessing the emergence of new trading technology. This book suggests that electronic commerce, even though it is overturning retailing and business practices around the world, is still only in a relatively insignificant pioneering phase, akin to mine railways or early ship-to-shore radios. There is an, as yet, unanticipated impact that will go much further in reshaping societies, largely for the good. To explore this lurking potential it is necessary to divide online purchasing into two distinct strands. The first is sales channels, in which specific retailers, manufacturers or service companies offer their output. The second is interactive marketplaces, in which anyone can sell.
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