E-commerce is getting boring these days, and that's a good thing.
Lowering the level of hype around buying and selling stuff over the Internet gives the industry the opportunity to catch up to the high expectations it has set for itself.
In the last two weeks, I've been at technology conferences, Internet Showcase and Demo 98, where the best of the new technologies are invited to debut. From an e-commerce perspective, the new stuff was underwhelming.
Internet Showcase even had a special e-commerce day: I counted six different cataloging vendors, several larger e-commerce software vendors, and quite a few companies eyeing online banking, but nothing earthshaking.
The most interesting technology came from Narrative Communications, a streaming media start-up now focused on the Internet ad business. At Demo 98, Narrative showed an ad banner for Eddie Bauer that lets people buy merchandise from the banner itself, rather than clicking over to the seller's Web site.
That will please Web publishers because visitors can make a purchase from an advertiser without leaving the host Web site, thus keeping that visitor on the publisher's site instead of losing her to the advertiser's store.
At Demo, e-commerce activity fell in the category "make it easier for users." CyberSource streamlined the experience for buying software online, and NetDox reduced the complexity of its service for guaranteeing delivery of documents over the Net.
Far from signaling any slowdown in the Net commerce space, these small moves reflect a welcome maturing. If online purchasing is ever going to take off, it must become easier for consumers and integrated better with corporate purchasing systems.
Internet commerce must benefit both sellers and buyers, who certainly have other options for making the same transactions. Because businesses and consumers make purchases differently, the online commerce market rightly divides into two segments.
The business-to-business side has taken off faster than consumer sales in part because purchasing is easier to automate for a company than for a household. Companies buy a lot of things over and over: office supplies, temporary workers, travel services. Consumers tend to buy things one at a time.
For businesses, automation cuts costs for both buyers and sellers because procurement software can route orders to approved vendors, get the best prices, ensure proper approvals, and reduce paperwork. In many offices, sending someone out to buy $50 of emergency office supplies may generate paperwork, approvals, and attention that cost the company another $50.
Writing software to accomplish those ends isn't glamorous and won't get much attention in the press, but it's critically important. It's boring, but potentially very profitable, which is why that particular segment has moved faster than the consumer space.