Networking issues have topped the bill recently, including speculation that troubled 3Com is next up on the merger block. But before it disappears inside some massive telecoms company, it has embarked on a company-wide reorganisation around its bestselling products and announced an interesting, but flawed, e-commerce initiative.
Networking may be the place to make money for resellers feeling the pinch on PC margins, but to assume that such products can be sold or implemented without human intervention is naive. 3Com should know better.
What 3Com has done is form an e-business group to set up a Website dedicated to selling fully configured networks. But last time we checked, users could barely boot up a PC without making at least one call to a helpdesk. Even in the business world, it isn't common practice to hand over the installation of something as complex and expensive as a network to internal staff. So why does 3Com think flogging networks over the Web is going to work? Maybe it's part of the headlong rush to the pot of gold at the end of the e-commerce rainbow, but it's still flawed.
Businesses are not ready to buy networks on the Web because they are still getting used to buying commodity products such as PCs and printers online. A network is a different beast to understand, buy and install - imagine a five-year old with a 1,000-piece jigsaw of a Jackson Pollack painting and you're close. No matter how much information you put on a Website, people will still want to call because networking technologies require explanation. Sure, you can buy a network interface card as a commodity product, but what about a 32-way router designed to act as the traffic cop in the middle of a departmental Lan, or a firewall-secured e-commerce system to put your business on the global highway? They're not the type of products you get in a cereal box and certainly don't lend themselves to being explained and successfully sold via a computer screen.
Again, it's the human contact issue that derails the e-commerce train when it comes to buying non-commodity products. Until e-commerce sites become more interactive, using live chat capabilities such as the ICQ program, people will not be comfortable parting with their cash.
According to 3Com, it will focus on referring customers to a local Var for fulfilment, although (shades of Compaq on the way) customers will also have the option to buy directly from 3Com. Hardly very channel-friendly - how many companies are going to choose a Var over dealing directly with 3Com?
3Com will no doubt use the Website to flog its low-end products, which yield little margin anyway. After poor quarterly results, the merger wolves are prowling around the wounded networking giant and the channel is not the best place to recoup much in the way of returns on low-yield products.
Online selling is a better way of squeezing that extra penny out of low-end products, but that's all it's good for.
Reactions to the company's online plans have ranged from 'so what?' to 'why don't they just take resellers outside and shoot them in the head?' A little harsh, perhaps, but is this initial push a gentle warning that 3Com expects resellers to do a lot more online, without it, in the future? Maybe a bullet would be more humane.
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