In much of this book, we've seen how intranets and the Internet can help streamline the ways that companies do business, and change the way that people within a corporation communicate. For many companies, though, the biggest benefit of an intranet can be counted directly on the bottom line-intranets, used in conjunction with the Internet, help the companies do business with their customers. It allows the companies to better market their goods and services, and to take direct orders right online over the intranet. And it also allows the companies to order directly from other businesses as well.
Today, the amount of business done on the Internet and over intranets is relatively small. In the coming years, however, that business is expected to grow to many billions of dollars. The dramatic growth of the Internet has been fueled by business and consumers, and it shows no sign of letting up. The Internet may become one of the primary places that businesses operate-and is expected to be the place where many billions of dollars of goods and services will be bought and sold every year. Because of that, the ability to do commerce is a vital part of any intranet.
Businesses will use intranets as a way to market and sell their products and services. They will accept electronic payment using an intranet as well.
Increasingly, businesses will use the Internet to market and sell their products. Many people will buy things while at home and at their place of business instead of at retail stores-and they will use the Internet to browse through catalogs, and then make purchases online.
There is a major problem that has to be overcome with electronic commerce over the Internet and intranets, however. The nature of the Internet is that it's an unsecured network. As packets travel across it, anyone along the way could conceivably examine those packets. Because of that, there are potential dangers to doing business online-if you pay over the Internet with a credit card, someone could conceivably snoop at it and steal your credit card number and other identifying information. That means that businesses that expect to sell goods and services need some secure way to sell them.
A number of ways of making money payments across the Internet have sprung up to solve the problem. Probably the one that will be most used is the Secure Electronic Transaction protocol (SET)-a set of procedures and protocols designed to make financial transactions on the Internet as safe as possible. SET uses encryption technology to make sure that no one can steal your credit card number; only the sender and the receiver can decipher the numbers. See Chapter 17 for details on how encryption works. Major credit card companies such as VISA, MasterCard, and American Express support SET, as do software companies such as Microsoft and Netscape. With that backing, SET will almost certainly become the standard way for sending secure credit card information over the Internet.
There are other schemes for doing business over the Internet and intranets. In some of them, credit cards aren't used. Instead, people get electronic "tokens" that function as cash. Various terms are being used for this new form of money, partly from vendors offering electronic payment services, including NetCash, CyberCash, .eCash, and emoney. Someone purchases a certain amount of electronic money, and then can use it for online transactions, without having to go through credit card verification for each purchase. There will be other methods of electronic payments online as well.
There are people who believe that the Internet may transform the way that people buy goods and services at least to the same extent, and possibly more, as happened with the advent of mail-order catalogs. Almost any company that sells to the general public will certainly want to use their intranet as a way to help market and sell what they produce.
Doing this requires that a company use its intranet as well as the Internet. In general, the intranet is used as a way to market the goods and services, and the intranet is used as a way to let people actually buy the goods. Today, almost any major company you can name markets via the Internet, while few actually sell anything.
To market what they produce, companies create Web sites on the Internet, outside of the intranet's firewall. What most companies have found is that if all they do is create an advertisement on their Web site, they'll get very little traffic to their site. Few people want to spend their time reading ads online. Because of that, most businesses have found that they need to create compelling content, such as entertainment clips, videos, sounds, and news items. Once they draw people to their site, they can then market their goods and services. Commercial Web sites have also found that word of mouth isn't good enough to draw a crowd to their sites. To ensure that people visit them, they advertise on other Web sites. When someone clicks on an ad, they are immediately sent to the Web site.
While a variety of content such as videos and audio clips may draw people to a site, once people are there, businesses want them to learn about their goods, and ideally to order them. Companies build Web-based online catalogs that promote what is for sale. These catalogs can be as simple as text listings of what's available, or as complex as true multimedia catalogs that include sound and animations. Many companies now have Web sites that include online catalogs, such as L.L. Bean. In addition to catalogs, sites also make available a searchable database of their goods and services, so that people can target what they want to buy, and find information out about it quickly.
Bringing customers to the site and showing them what is available is only the first part of what a company wants to do. More important is to close the sale over the Internet. That's the difficult part, because many people still worry about performing financial transactions over the Internet. However, secure ways of commerce are being developed. At the point where someone actually places the order, they will send information to the intranet. They may not know that they've been transferred, but that's where their data eventually goes. There are a variety of ways to pay online, although the SET standard will undoubtedly become popular.
An intranet comes into play as well after the payment is made and authorized. Since the customer has entered the information about the products being ordered, there's no need for employees to key in an order. The order can be sent over the intranet via electronic mail or via a customized system to the fulfillment department, where the goods are shipped.
Selling directly to consumers is only one way that business can be done with intranets. Many billions of dollars are also spent every year on business-to-business transactions, in which businesses order goods and services from each other. In business-to-business transactions, companies can directly communicate with each other from intranet to intranet, sending data and orders between them over the public Internet. Since much of that data is generally confidential, there needs to be some way of keeping it from prying eyes. The answer is to use Very Secure Private Networks (VSPNs), a technology that allows intranets to use the Internet as if it were a private, secure communications channel. It does this by "tunneling" the private data through the intranet. See Chapter 20 for more information about VSPNs.
For years, a technology called Electronic Data Interchange (EDI) has allowed companies to do direct business with each other electronically. EDI allows businesses to fill out electronic forms and send them to each other, and then have the receiving business act on those forms. EDI is being brought to intranets and the Internet as a way to speed business-to-business transactions.
EDI is not the only way that companies can do business with each other over intranets, however. Intranets can help companies do business with each other in other ways as well. They can post information about what kinds of goods and services they need, and other companies can bid on providing them. They can use it as a way to better communicate with contractors and with businesses they buy goods from. In fact, intranets can help companies do business with each other in so many ways, that there are many people who believe that for many years, the main commercial use of the Internet and intranets will be for business-to-business transactions instead of for transactions between consumers and businesses.
Intranets are used not merely to streamline businesses and make them more effective, but as a place to do business as well-to take orders for goods and services and to fill orders for goods and services. In order for this to happen, though, a secure way must be designed for credit card information to be sent over the notoriously unsecured Internet. There are many methods for doing this, but one standard, called the Secure Electronic Transaction protocol (SET), will probably be the primary method used. It has been endorsed by VISA, MasterCard, America Express, Microsoft and Netscape, among other companies. It is a system that will allow people with bank cards to do secure business over intranets. This illustration shows how a transaction using SET might work.
Intranets may revolutionize the way that businesses sell goods and services. Using an intranet, a company can inexpensively market its goods and services, take orders for them, and then fulfill the order. This illustration shows how a record company called CyberMusic could do business using an intranet.
Intranets can communicate with one another through the public Internet, instead of by using private leased lines. Leasing private lines can be very expensive, while using the Internet is inexpensive. However, of vital importance when companies do business with one another using in-tranets is that any transactions be kept private and secure. Virtual Secure Private Networks (VSPNs) allow intranets to communicate with one another over the Internet, while keeping all data secure, by using "tunneling" technology. See Chapter 20 for details on how VSPNs work.