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Last Updated: Friday, 22 December 2006, 10:17 GMT
Net ushers in a quiet revolution
Starbucks discount card, AP
Bill's discount on a coffee crossed international boundaries
The world has changed, and we can feel it in the network, says regular columnist Bill Thompson.

This year there has been remarkably little fuss made over the continued growth of online shopping for Christmas presents, perhaps because we've finally reached the point where it is just a normal part of our lives.

After years of effusive headlines - the BBC had "Internet shopping set for new record" in December 2002, and "E-Commerce set for Xmas bonanza" in 2003 - we seem finally to have accepted that the network is here to stay and settled down to use it.

But just buying groceries or presents online, or sending electronic gift certificates at the last minute, is only part of the story. The network is changing our lives in many other ways, and we often don't notice them.

Only connect

In the last month the frictionless nature of the global electronic economy has been brought home to me in several small interactions that reveal, by their simplicity and straightforwardness, just how connected we have all become.

The first was on a recent trip to Liverpool. I went into the Starbucks opposite the town hall for a coffee, and at the till I fished out a Starbucks card. These are all over the place at the moment, as the coffee chain realises that if we've got one of its pre-paid cards we're more likely to resist the blandishments of its rivals.

Bill Thompson
...while the economy may be frictionless it is not yet a level playing field
Bill Thompson
I gave it to the cashier, she swiped it through the till, and I got 2.75 off my bill for a latte and a croissant.

So far, so boring. But the card I used hadn't come from a UK shop. It was a free $5 card that had been handed to me by a roller-skating worker last June as I was watching the Brooklyn Gay Pride parade on Seventh Avenue.

Somewhere in the vast databank that is the Starbucks customer management system it probably registered the fact that a $5 card from Brooklyn had been used in Liverpool, but there was no problem with this, and I got my coffee.

Shortly afterwards I had another hint of how things are going, this time in London.

I often swing by the Apple Store on Regent Street when I've got some time to kill. It's warm, it's out of the rain and it has free wireless.

Sometimes, I confess, I succumb to temptation and buy some hardware, though often I manage to call my technology counsellor, Simon, and he talks me out of it by telling me to wait for one of the cool toys that are soon to be launched.

Apple logo in London store, PA
Many firms are using wireless tech to shorten queues
But not always. A couple of weeks ago I was queuing up to get one of the new (red) nanos for my daughter when one of the staff sidled up to me and asked if I had a credit card and an e-mail address.

It wasn't, as I rather hoped, an invitation to pre-Christmas debauchery but an offer of service of a different, more practical, kind. He had a wireless terminal with him and swiped my credit card, typed in my e-mail and gave me the iPod.

My invoice was e-mailed to me and I saved 10 minutes of queuing and a sheet of A4 paper.

At Cambridge train station Mike, the ticket inspector - or perhaps he's a "revenue protection officer" these days - will sell me a ticket if the queues are too long, and he can do chip and pin authorisation with a cute little Bluetooth-enabled keypad.

I haven't asked him what the security protocols are yet, but I'm usually the only hairy hacker with a beard standing on the platform so I think I'm probably safe.

And it has just happened again.

As I sat on the train from Leeds to Manchester writing this article I was asked for my ticket. It wasn't to check whether it was valid, but for a customer survey. The man wandering down the aisle was entering the ticket type, origin and destination into a handheld computer, building up a quick passenger survey far faster and more reliably than the survey cards they keep handing out on London buses could ever achieve - and with a lot less waste.

Living wires

All of these examples show that the network is being embedded into the design of information systems, and how this can be used to enhance customer service, improve the quality of our interactions with organisations of all sizes and types.

Of course it isn't all perfect, and there will continue to be network-assisted disasters as we are currently seeing in the fallout from the over-ambitious offers of free broadband by Carphone Warehouse, where customers are complaining and waiting far too long to be connected.

A fistful of computer cables, Eyewire
Data networks are spreading their tentacles everywhere
And we are still sometimes being ripped off by new technology.

Everyone knows that electronic transactions are cheaper than having people answering phones because the customer is doing the data entry that would otherwise have to be paid for.

Everyone knows that paperless systems save money, if only on paper, ink and getting someone to go round and replace cartridges or tickets.

Yet NCP, which runs the parking at Cambridge station and many other railway stations around the country, charge a 20p fee for anyone who chooses to use its text-based parking service instead of shovelling cash into a ticket machine.

It's the same with cinemas, theatres and gigs, where electronic booking costs as much as doing it over the phone.

Finally, while the economy may be frictionless it is not yet a level playing field. Apple may have the coolest paperless payment system around, but my red nano still cost a lot more in pounds than I would have had to pay in dollars if I'd been in Brooklyn.

Mind you, the coffee would have been the same price, so I suppose things could be worse.

Bill Thompson is a regular commentator on the BBC World Service programme Digital Planet

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