The "last mile" dilemma still hinders online consumer sales -- most aren't home during the day to accept deliveries, and don't want valuable merchandise left unattended on the doorstep. Now, two start-ups believe they have found the correct routes to an answer. PaxZone LLC of Chicago recruits local retailers, such as coffee shops and video stores, to install secure cabinets to hold deliveries. Consumers pick the nearest PaxZone participant to receive their packages, and can stop by any time during business hours. Sellers save money, because many shippers charge less to deliver to businesses than to homes. zBox Company of San Francisco provides a secure lock box to consumers. Each shipment to a zBox is assigned a unique code, and participating shippers include Airborne Express, FedEx, United Parcel Service, and the U.S. Post Office.
Cutting the Cord
Speedy Internet access is an essential part of doing business in the year 2001, but getting a fast connection has meant staying in highly populated urban and suburban areas where DSL phone service and cable modems are generally available. Now, users only need a satellite dish, modem, AC outlet, and an unobstructed view of the sky to the south. Hughes Network Systems of Germantown, Md., a unit of General Motors, pioneered the field of satellite Internet access with DirectPC, a one-way service that features fast access by satellite into your computer, but commands and file uploads from your computer go out by phone line. StarBand Communications Inc. of McLean, Va., a start-up with backing from Microsoft, offers high-speed two-way direct-satellite Internet access from anywhere in the continental United States. Later this year, Hughes is promising a two-way service similar to StarBand.
The Business That Plays Together
Working together no longer means being in one place, as more businesses get more tools for electronic collaboration. Groove Networks Inc. of Beverly, Mass., a new company formed by Ray Ozzie, the creator of Lotus Notes has created a shared workspace for messaging, documents, photos, and calendars. Groove is a form of "peer to peer" networking, in which information gets stored on group members' computers rather than on a central server, so it's handy for businesses who don't want to build a massive computing infrastructure. Likewise, KnowledgeMail, from Palo Alto, Calif., start-up Tacit Knowledge Systems Inc. tracks all the electronic mail exchanged within a company, analyzing the text for keywords that indicate who on a staff has a specific expertise. Employees can tap KnowledgeMail to search for co-workers to help them answer questions, while a privacy screen keeps searchers from learning the identity of experts identified by KnowledgeMail unless those experts give their consent.
Honey, Could You Answer the Camera?
Digital cameras are a great way to share visual information, but only after you've downloaded the picture into a personal computer and dispatched the image by e-mail or posted it to a Web page. Sprint PCS and FlashPoint Technology Inc. of San Jose, Calif., have made image-sharing a near-immediate proposition with a new service that connects digital cameras running FlashPoint's Digita software to Sprint PCS mobile phones, sending the picture directly to designated Web pages. Expected applications include construction contractors who want customers to immediately see job-site changes, insurance adjusters examining damaged buildings, and real estate agents eager to find buyers for their latest listing. Digita software is already used in digital cameras from Hewlett Packard, Kodak, and Minolta.
Time was the credit establishment frowned on customers who couldn't commit; now they're encouraging them. American Express and MasterCard both offer customers the option to protect their accounts by using either virtual or disposable account numbers to shield their real credit card number from prying eyes. Credit card companies are always trying out new ways to protect the public from fraud, but industry watchers question whether these disposable credit cards make the Web a safer place to conduct business for e-merchants.
American Express' Private Payments program, for example, allows customers to shop on line with a limited-use card number. After a transaction, the number is no longer valid. "It can help reduce fraud and the costs associated with fraud, since it is designed for a single purchase," says Molly Faust, an American Express spokesperson.
But according to Dr. Audri Lanford, co-editor of Internet Scambusters, an "e-zine" which covers fraud and misinformation related to Internet-based activities, these programs do little more for business than to allay the fears of consumers. "It protects the consumer's information, but it doesn't solve any of the fundamental issues for the merchants," Lanford says. For instance, merchants still bear the financial responsibility if they become victims of online fraud.
Avivah Litan, research director with the Gartner Group, says the only person who benefits is the consumer. "Merchants don't implement disposable numbers, consumers decide to use them," Litan says. "The merchant has no choice. They're not going to do that much to protect businesses from fraud. You have to go a step further and use other schemes."
Fraud detection methods that merchants can use include setting up systems that inspect transactions and compare them against databases of rules that can identify whether a transaction is fraudulent or not. "These are more effective for businesses than disposable numbers," Litan adds.