If 1998 was the year of convergence between the big networking and telecoms giants, then 1999 is when e-commerce finally becomes worth talking about.
Vendors are like crazed shoppers at the Harrods sale, climbing over each other's backs to announce some form of Web sales operation. Far from dipping their toes in the online water, industry big boys Compaq, Hewlett Packard and IBM are legging it naked down the beach into the surf.
Last week, the internet efforts of Compaq and IBM stepped up a gear with both companies trying to show how Net savvy they want to be. The clearest difference between their current and earlier online schemes is that they've given up pretending they're still 'fully committed' to the channel. Now their Web strategy messages are arriving with all the subtlety of Jeremy Clarkson reviewing a Lada.
Hypocrisy seems to be high on the agenda. Compaq, having just recently announced its compaq.com business division, last week hit out at online resellers by severing all links with those selling Presario home PCs who don't also have a real-world outlet.
Apparently, Mike Pocock, vice president of channel sales at Compaq, said more than 40 requests from online resellers looking for Compaq accreditation had been received, but all were turned down. The reason: no value add. Call us cynical, but this smacks of strong-arm tactics. What the hell is no value add? Just because a service isn't attached to a PC doesn't mean there's no added value. The whole benefit of buying a PC on the Web is that you can usually get it cheaper - is that not value add? Apparently not to Compaq.
A US representative of the manufacturer said the thinking behind the move was to bring some control to the rapidly growing online PC market. Wake up and smell the hypocrisy. Look at the balance sheets of Dell and Gateway and you can clearly see that the only thing out of control in the online PC market is the rocketing growth rate, which will probably reach Mars faster than the next space shuttle. Compaq, pulling its PC ranges from other online resellers, just weeks after it announced its own online selling operation, is acting like the schoolyard bully.
How come it never complained about lack of online value-add before it launched its own Web operation?
Rival IBM, which is sitting in the number two PC slot, has just confirmed what we've known was bound to happen since we broke the NetfinityDirect story last year. The vendor has announced that it plans to sell PCs direct across the Web in the next few months - with channel help, of course.
Small businesses are the initial target but David Boucher, general manager of the AFI strategy at IBM, claimed that the manufacturer will sell direct to all customer markets by the middle of 1999. We're not sure yet if IBM plans to demand that all other online resellers stop selling its kit, but it's very clear - and some would say reassuring - to know that now the big PC players are going virtual, the business of selling online will be as low-down, treacherous and vicious as it is offline.
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