VSJ – April 2004 – Sounding Board

Robin Jones muses on the paradoxes of Internet shopping.

Two reports in Computing, either side of Christmas, gave a considerable fillip to the e-commerce community. The first suggested that people are becoming much more comfortable with Web-based shopping. The third quarter of last year saw a turnover of £1.5 billion, over 80% up on the previous year. The second piece reported Christmas e-trading figures almost directly opposite to those experienced on the High Street. Some e-tailers showed trade rising by as much as 30%.

At the same time (and on the other hand) we are bombarded by doom-laden accounts of new viruses, worms, trojans and 419 and phishing scams. So why is the general public becoming more, rather than less, confident?

One reason has to do with quality of service. I recently had to buy a new fridge. Naturally, I researched the market on the Web. But, having found a model that looked like it met my requirements, I wanted to see something more satisfying than a blurry JPEG before parting with any green folding stuff. So I phoned the only local supplier. ‘No’, said the sales assistant, ‘We don’t have one in stock. But we could order it for you. Of course, if we do, you’ll have to buy it.’ Naturally, I did not take up this generous offer. I bought on the Web, saved myself about £90 (roughly 25%), took delivery within 3 working days (the retailer would have taken over a fortnight) and could have returned the fridge without query if I’d wanted to! Unless the High Street heeds the moral of this tale, there aren’t going to be any high streets. As I write, Tower Records is filing for bankruptcy.

But that doesn’t mean that those of us in the e-commerce business can sit back and watch the cash roll in. Growing confidence there may be but it won’t survive a well-publicised disaster or several. Joe and Jane Average-User know very little of the pitfalls that induce almost continual paranoia in our profession. Nor should they need to. After all, we don’t expect them to understand the intricacies of fuel injection before we let them drive a car. We have to develop ways of maintaining their security that don’t entail their having to remember to update their virus signature files or needing to respond to the firewall asking them whether they really want the spooler sub-system to connect to the Internet. I forget who said, ‘software is frozen assumptions’. But it’s a telling phrase. The assumptions built in to many of the current crop of security programs are that (1) the network is up all day every day and (2) there’s a network administrator doing the housework. Well, at home, the network is probably a single machine and it’s turned off when it’s not actually being used, not least because it makes an annoying noise. So if, by default, the anti-virus software automatically downloads update files at a particular time every day, there’s a fair chance it will be out of date most of the time. And if the family goes away on holiday for a month, they can pretty much expect a disaster on their return. Why isn’t it standard practice to launch signature update requests either on power-up (for broadband connections) or as soon as an Internet connection is made (for modems)? Because of the assumptions, that’s why. Can we stop making them, please?

[Something you’d like to get off your chest? Email me (Robin Jones) at eo@iap.org.uk.]

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