A Word from the Doctor: E-Commerce Guru Jeffrey Baumgartner
Recently, he was asked what he thought the old Chinese proverb 'More people build walls than bridges' refers to in e-commerce. "Strange, but interesting," he muses. Not exactly the practical how-do-I-get-started-in-business questions Baumgartner normally receives but he loves a challenge. In the three years since donning his Dr. Ecommerce scrubs for the EU, Baumgartner has earned his guru status one question at a time, impressing CEOs, lawyers, students, and budding e-capitalists from all over the world with thorough, insightful, and often humorous answers that are free of alienating, pie-in-the-sky twaddle and insider lingo. How do I sell Italian food on the Web? How can I sell cheap cigarettes on-line? How do I market Nepalese handicrafts to the Japanese? What's the deal with VAT? No question is too strange, obvious, or arcane for the good doctor and his panel of experts.
Baumgartner's own knowledge base comes from paying attention and picking up information along the way. He programs the site himself and even pays out of his own pocket to ensure the site's visibility and objectivity. "It was clear to me that Dr. Ecommerce would never get noticed as a subdirectory of a subdirectory on a massive Web site." This arrangement also gives Baumgartner the distance he needs to occasionally criticize the EU's policies.
Dr. Ecommerce is just the latest exploit in a globe-trotting career. Born in New Brunswick, New Jersey, Baumgartner initially pursued a career as a sculptor, studying art at Richmond College in London. Ten years ago, he founded one of Thailand's first new-media companies, JPB Creative, and worked hard consulting and producing Web sites and multimedia CD-ROMs. Bangkok lost its charm for Baumgartner after a few years. "I had reached the limits of what could be done with the Internet in Thailand. Additionally, the city's legendary pollution, which was inflaming his respiratory problems, and the birth of his first child, Alexander, in 1997 sped his exit from the country. Baumgartner's contacts with a Luxembourg company called ERIN led to an interview in Brussels for the Dr. Ecommerce job.
Because he has lived mostly outside the United States for the past two decades, Baumgartner takes an internationalist perspective on the Internet, and he isn't afraid to tweak American myopia on the subject. "Americans tend to look at American Web sites and purchase from American Web sites or non-American Web sites that use English and have taken an American approach." he says. "Meanwhile, most French people are going to-and buying from-French Web sites, Koreans are going to Korean sites, etc. I expect the big difference is that the non-Americans are more likely to have spent time on American sites than Americans have spent on foreign Web sites."
Baumgartner was living in Thailand when the country's currency collapsed in 1997, and he's watched the latest dot-com depression in the U.S. with great interest. "I think the downturn has rationalized the market a great deal. Great business ideas now need to be great business ideas in order to get funding. I do think, however, that exciting developments will not be based on the PC-accessed Internet."
The PC will soon become an anachronism, says Baumgartner. "Americans have pretty much ignored the mobile Internet and interactive TV, in which Europe seems to be leading," he chides. Baumgartner admits to stirring up trouble in on-line discussion forums on this subject, most recently in a heavily American discussion group. "I was tired of their saying everyone who didn't worship their new paradigms 'didn't get it.' So I told the members of the forum that they didn't get it because they were sure the future was in the QWERTY-based Internet and, as a result, were missing developments in mobile and ubiquitous Internet."
"Mobile and ubiquitous": Baumgartner can easily evoke the future of the Web, envisioning a less intrusive, service oriented, and more fully integrated Internet-no longer captured in a PC monitor but wired into every aspect of life. He sees "intelligent agents" taking over many of the tasks that tether us to our computer screens for hours at a time: "For example, an intelligent agent in the house might regularly negotiate with electricity suppliers to get the best price package for the home owner. Likewise, when making an international phone call, an intelligent agent might negotiate with various telecom suppliers for the best rate. Meanwhile, agents representing the utilities will have to monitor demand and price accordingly. They may offer special deals tied to contracts, and the household's agent will have to determine whether the contract is in the home owner's best interest."
We may even take the Internet on the road with us, Baumgartner speculates, with "smart" cars that use the Net to automatically negotiate and book the best hotel room while the driver is still hours away on the road.
All of this could be available in 10 years, he promises, and-as a bonus-radical breakthroughs in mind-computer interaction. "There has been some preliminary work in this area. I know British researchers have been looking into this kind of thing to allow severely handicapped people to operate artificial limbs or communicate. I have also heard whispers that the U.S. military is exploring this area as a means for pilots in high-speed jets to react ultraquickly." The military's investment in mind-computer interaction is perhaps obvious, but Baumgartner imagines another interested party. "The pornography business-the real pioneers in e-commerce-will doubtless have a field day with this."
Baumgartner has also witnessed plenty of innovative ways to make and collect money on the Internet. The European Commission is currently funding a research program which is developing technology that can scan a person for measurements and send the information to a machine that then automatically cuts a suit to exact size. Another research program is exploring a scanning bar that could be installed on shopping carts: "When customers go to the supermarket and drop goods into the cart, the prices are scanned (the system would use radio tags) and added to the total. If the customer removes something from the cart, the cost is subtracted from the total. When customers are finished shopping, they simply go to the checkout queue, quickly pay, and are on their way." Another product, a Japanese invention called I-pot, takes wireless technology to new levels. The "wired" teapot is fitted with a device that monitors its use and beams the information to a special Web page monitored by family members. In a land where tea drinking is a daily ritual, children can thus monitor their elderly parents and grandparents to be certain they are OK.
Baumgartner likes to discuss the cultural differences shaping e-commerce. "In India, since many people don't have credit cards and labor is cheap, many e-commerce outfits employ messengers who hand deliver products to customers and collect cash on delivery." Japan, too, manages to stay high-tech even with low credit card usage by electronically ordering groceries to be delivered to the nearest convenience store, where customers pay cash at the counter.
Attitudes about privacy are also subject to cultural differences, Baumgartner says. He is quick to observe that despite the privacy hype in the States, Europeans seem more inclined to protect their private information than Americans. He points to European law, which allows consumers access to information that has been collected on them and then gives numerous personal examples. "I know a couple of people who have told their kids not to give away personal information on the Web and that if they have to fill out a form to access something, they should lie. I don't know if American parents would take such an approach."
his interest in the medium, Baumgartner is careful to draw the line
between the Web and his personal life. "I prefer to play with my kids,
travel, read, walk than play on the Internet." But his cable modem keeps
the Internet just a mouse click away. Discussion forums do interest
him intensely, particularly his e-Thesis site, which enables students
of e-commerce to share information and ask questions. The forum grew
organically from students approaching him with questions. "The logical
thing to do was to bring these students together in a forum so they
could help each other out. It worked wondrously, and what started as
a trick to reduce my workload has become my favorite on-line hobby."