Every once in a while, there comes along a technology that transforms the way we do things. Just as the fuel engine revolutionised transport and radio technology enabled a global deluge of information, the internet is taking all that one step further by offering organisations worldwide reach and enormous commercial opportunities.
There will be about one billion internet users by next year. The marriage of IT and the internet is creating a networked world in which everyone is connected to everyone else. Employees round the world can communicate with their colleagues and work together, whatever the time difference.
This e-business revolution gathers momentum every day and is transforming communication, collaboration and commerce. It enables smaller companies to compete with the biggest and best and it is predicted that 35% of all UK business will be conducted via the internet within three years.
Business over the internet looks set to blow earlier forecasts out of the water. As more consumers accept the idea of electronic transactions, more and more retailers are going online. The result has been a phenomenal compound growth rate, with electronic sales expected to pass the $100 billion mark ( £60.2 billion) within five years in the more advanced US markets. European electronic sales are likely to soar to some $5 billion by 2001. Business-to-business transactions across the internet increased tenfold between 1996 and 1997 and are growing faster across Europe than are consumer sales.
Sectors such as finance, retail, utilities, telecommunications and media are already reaping the rewards of forward-looking strategies - of moving from the traditional ways of working to fully fledged e-businesses. The sheer growth of e-business and consumer acceptance means that companies which do not embrace this new way of doing things will be left out in the cold. Consumers who cannot find their favourite company on the internet will simply go elsewhere.
It has become clear that e-business enables companies to be much more customer-focused. An electronic transaction is essentially a one-to-one transaction, and information about each customer's buying habits and preferences can be stored. This allows companies to tailor promotional material to suit each individual, and lets the big 'faceless' companies regain a closer link with each customer.
While electronic commerce tends to get most media attention, the impact of the new networking capabilities on a company's core business processes is just as significant. Intranets (internal networks) facilitate greater collaboration between employees, saving time, money and effort in all day-to-day operations. Staff have immediate access to company information and can share solutions to common problems. They can work from home, from external locations, when their colleagues are asleep - and yet still be part of the same environment. Some companies have already found that 'electronic' teams can be more effective than the traditional teams working in the same building.
Extranets, which bring in the suppliers and, perhaps, customers, can spread their benefits even further, so that the supply chain is strengthened and made more efficient.
The business case for both types of networks is being proved every day as companies experience how smarter and more efficient processes can help the bottom line.
Not surprisingly, electronic mail is becoming the main communications channel for millions. E-mail volume in Europe last year was double the number of letters sent via the Post Office. It is not just the business world that is seeing the benefits, however. Educational establishments are using the internet to allow distance learning and on-demand learning, so that students can gain access to material anywhere, at any time. The public sectors, such as government and health, are also taking advantage of new technology.
A web-based service is the first dedicated service set up to meet the needs of the medical community and allows any doctor signed up with the General Medical Council to share medical knowledge. The web site is a powerful addition to the doctor's black bag and illustrates how e-business can strengthen communication and collaboration.
Many people see the personal computer as the only way into the internet, but the PC is being joined already by dozens of other access devices, such as web-enabled televisions, cell-phones, public kiosks, cars and personal area networks. Sales of these devices are expected to grow by more than 40% within three years and surpass the sale of PCs within five years. This pervasive computing will push up the number of people linked to the internet even more dramatically and mean that the changes we have seen in the business world to date are just a sampler of what's to come - at a much faster rate.
It is not the technology that is transforming our lives but what we are doing with it. And these innovative applications will continue to have an impact on business, our leisure time and society as a whole.