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PC World

E-commerce visions: Wearable wallets, vacant malls


by Tom Spring

BOSTON (IDG) -- Nicholas Negroponte's brave new world of e-commerce has roadblocks. But he predicts bookstores, pharmacies, and car dealerships will eventually join the cultural scrap heap of automats and rotary phones.

Brick-and-mortar stores will become showcases to advertise products, not sell them, Negroponte suggested in a keynote address here at the Internet Commerce Expo. The founder of the famed MIT Media Lab shared his cutting-edge vision of the road to e-commerce, including the bumps.

"People now go to bookstores for serendipitous reasons," he says of consumers. "They go to browse, buy a latte, or pick someone up." But buying prescription drugs and haggling over car prices have an immediate advantage online, he adds.

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But before we enter an age of vacant mall parking lots, the Internet community has more pressing needs to address. Negroponte says the "real" e-commerce boom will happen when computers sell for well under $100, telecommunication costs spiral downward, and payment and delivery of goods and services over the Net are streamlined.

Strikes and hurdles

"The cost of computing is still too high," Negroponte says. Comparing his decade-old Apple Computer to a high-end 400-MHz system, he maintains computer horsepower is overrated. Dirt-cheap computer devices would tear down economic barriers of going online, he says.

"Why is the most expensive communication the worst?" Negroponte asked rhetorically. Reliability and affordability are essential to create the infrastructure needed to foster e-commerce growth around the world, he says. Circuit switches must be able to convert to digital networks, as well.

A number of third-world countries could gain from e-commerce if not for dilapidated or nonexistent phone networks, Negroponte says. He pointed to $10-per-minute rates in some parts of Africa, for example.

Another e-commerce essential is the real-world delivery of cyberpurchased goods. "Physical delivery of things is an absolute essential to e-commerce," he says.

Likewise, payment remains a challenge. Even has problems selling books to customers in places like Cambodia, where most of the population has no bank account, never mind a credit card. And the public's apprehension of punching credit card numbers into Web sites remains a major detractor to buying online.

Wash-and-wear computing

"E-commerce has got heads spinning, and rightfully so," Negroponte says.

Not only will e-commerce turn the business world on its head, the banking industry should start thinking about wearable e-commerce.

The MIT Media Lab is working on ways to use the human body as a distributed computer. According to this model, you will someday be able to download money from an ATM machine onto a ring on your finger, and pay for a quart of milk with a handshake.

Anything you touch, from a phone to your television, could upload your personal user profile.

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MIT's Negroponte bio
Internet Commerce Expo

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