Terri Tracey, Director, Program and Product Development / ATC National Association of Purchasing Management, Tempe, AZ 85284, 602/752-6276.
By now, most purchasing and supply chain management professionals have heard about the wonders of the Internet and the World Wide Web. What ARE these things? Do YOU need them? What's in it for me? This document will help you understand what the Internet is, where it came from, and how to connect to it. It will then address the difference between the Internet (net) and the World Wide Web (WWW, or web), followed by a detailed explanation of the web and how to best use it. Finally, it will explain how the Internet and the web can help purchasing professionals in their daily jobs.
What Is the Internet? The internet (net) is a global interconnected network of networks, an intricate system made up of modems and telephone wires. It has been called, "the world's largest phone system," since it exchanges digitized, rather than analog, data using phone lines. The net is a mechanism to transfer data from one computer to other computers. Data is transferred over the phone lines using a computer language called TCP/IP (Transmission Control Protocol/Internet Protocol). This allows every computer connected to the net to exchange data with every other connected computer.
TCP/IP transfers information in small chunks, called "packets." Each packet contains:
Sending in packets allows a large file to be broken into a number of smaller packets, each sent over different paths in the network. These packets are then re-assembled into one file at the destination computer.
When Did the Internet Begin? The internet was developed in 1969 by the Department of Defense, when they felt a need to protect sensitive defense information in the event of a worldwide or nuclear attack; four computers were connected. In the 1970s, scientists and universities began using the internet to share scientific data and research findings. At this time, universities and government institutions began connecting computers via local area networks; 15 computers were linked, forming the hub of the ARPANET (the Pentagon's Advanced Research Projects Agency). The 1980s brought the advent of the internet backbone, which connects a number of "supercomputers," or hubs, for routing internet traffic. There were 213 hosts connected to the internet in 1980. In 1992, over one million computers were connected to the internet; in 1997, estimates range from ten million to over forty million people who regularly access the internet.
A common misconception is that the Internet is owned and run by one person or one organization. In fact, it is not a "place" or a "destination," nor is it owned or controlled by any one entity. Because of this, there are no rules stating what can be sent over the internet or published on web sites.
What Can the Internet Do? How Can I Access it? The internet enables users to:
To take advantage of these capabilities, a user needs a computer, a modem, connectivity software, and an internet service provider.
What is the World Wide Web? How is it Different From the Internet? While the internet is strictly text-based, the World Wide Web (web, WWW, or W3) is simply a graphical interface that sits "on top of" the internet that allows users to browse. Hypertext linking, which allows users to quickly jump from document to document, was created in 1989. It wasn't until 1991 that the first web page used hypertext to cross-reference scientific research papers. In 1992, the first graphical browser - Mosaic - was invented, which enabled scientists and other researchers to incorporate graphical elements such as supporting charts and graphs into their works on the web. Graphical browsers enabled the average computer user to maneuver around the web, since the general public was very comfortable navigating the windows-like interface.
How Do I Access the Web? Users will need a computer, a modem, access to a telephone line that connects to the internet, an internet or online service provider, connectivity software, and a browser (Netscape Navigator, Microsoft Internet Explorer, or America Online 3.0's browser are the most popular).
Modems send data through telephone lines at different bandwidths. Most home modem speeds range from 14.4 Kbps (kilobits per second) to 56 Kbps (available mid-1997). Often, organizations have direct connections to the internet through their internal networks (WANs or LANs), with speeds up to 45,000 Kbps. You might visualize bandwidth by relating the modem speed to "pipe size"; the higher kbps, the bigger the pipe. Keep in mind that more data will travel through faster modems (like wider pipes) at faster rates. The following table is another way to help you picture how fast data travels:
|Connection Type - Bandwidth||Top Speed
|14.4 Kbps modem
||6 mph (jogger)
|28.8 Kbps modem
||12 mph (fast running)
|Digital (ISDN) phone line
|T1 dedicated connection
||625 mph (Boeing 757)
|Asymmetric Digital Subscriber Line (ADSL)*
||64 Kbps (send), 1,500 Kbps (receive)
||25 mph (send), 625 mph (receive)
|Fiber optic backbone (T3)
||17,000 mph (Space shuttle)
*ADSL sends far more slowly than it receives. Most users receive much more information when downloading web pages; thus, the premise behind ADSL is that a slower upstream speed is acceptable. (©Inside Technology Training, February 1997)
Browsers. Today, Netscape Navigator and Microsoft Internet Explorer are both common browsers. Netscape rnered most of the market a few years ago by offering their browser to users free of charge. After getting many users "hooked" on their product, they began charging for their browser. Microsoft, on the other hand, entered the internet market a bit later. They are now trying to get many more users hooked on their browser, so are currently offering their product at no cost.
To access the web, you will need an Internet Service Provider (ISP) or an Online Service Provider (OSP). Online Service Providers include America Online, CompuServe, and MSN (Microsoft Network). For those just beginning to use the internet and the web, an online service is often the best way to find your way around. In addition to the ability to send and receive e-mail, benefits of joining an online service include quick and easy access to:
Additionally, all online services provide internet access. However, many OSPs provide their customers with their own proprietary browser (rather than the more common Netscape Navigator or Microsoft Internet Explorer). Online services offer unlimited monthly access for $19.95 per month, or a lower base fee per month (between $4.95 and $9.95) for five hours of access, with a $2.95 per hour charge thereafter.
There are thousands of Internet Service Providers (ISPs) around the country. Some provide local access, while others - providing national access - allow users to more easily connect to the internet while traveling throughout the country. It's very important to sign up with an ISP who offers you a local telephone number to access the internet to avoid long distance telephone charges. A web site - www.thelist.com - lists virtually all ISPs throughout the United States. Most ISPs will provide customers with all software necessary to access the web, as well as a current browser. Additionally, some ISPs provide additional training for new web users ("newbies").
While searching for an ISP, you'll need to ask a number of questions:
Once you've signed up with an ISP or OSP, you're ready to begin surfing the web!
How Does the Web Work? Every web page contains a unique address, known as a URL (uniform resource locator). Initially, each computer was assigned a 12-digit IP (internet protocol) address which allowed up to four million computers to have different internet addresses. However, it's certainly much easier for us to understand and remember words than long strings of numbers; therefore, each web site is now assigned letters (this allows many more than four million computers to be connected). A sample URL is http://www.ism.ws, which is the address for NAPM's home page on the web. Each item in the URL helps to direct the internet to find the page you're looking for (proper capitalization is essential):
anything else at end further specifies location of site (e.g., country, file name, etc.)
Most business "domain" types are companies; therefore, the .com suffix will generally follow the company name (e.g., www.microsoft.com is the URL for Microsoft Corporation). The most common domain types are listed below:
To link up to a site on the web, several transactions need to take place. The URL which is typed into the top of the browser is sent to a Domain Name Server (DNS). The DNS translates the URL into IP (internet protocol) language. The IP is then dispersed across the internet to reach the web server where the web page you're looking for is located. The page is then returned to you through the network. This entire process usually takes a matter of a few seconds, depending on the amount of data requested, the speed of both the requesting and the destination modems, bandwidth available, and the amount of web activity occurring at the moment your request is sent.
E-mail is the most common use of the internet. Communications are greatly enhanced, since you can now talk with customers, suppliers, and other internal and external customers much more conveniently and at a much more rapid pace. No longer must you place a phone call to see if the person is available, leave a voice mail message for him/her to return your call, wait for the return call (which more than likely will come when you're away from your phone), and repeat this entire process a number of times before the business discussion or transaction can take place. With e-mail, you can type a few lines, hit "SEND," and feel confident your message is on its way. When the receiver reads your message, he/she can instantly reply in full, and the business transaction can be completed.
There are, of course, proper ways to communicate via e-mail; these conventions are known as "netiquette." Additionally, abbreviations and "emoticons," used exclusively in e-mail communications, have become common-place. (To understand emoticons, which help to introduce emotions into a text-based medium, look at the characters sideways.)
A few examples are listed below:
BBFN (Bye bye for now)
BRB (Be right back)
BTW (By the way)
IAC (In any case)
IMHO (In my humble opinion)
JK (Just kidding)
LOL (Laughing out loud)
OTOH (On the other hand)
ROTFL (Rolling on the floor laughing)
TTYL (Talk to ya later)
TYVM (Thank you very much)
:-) (Smile, laugh, just kidding)
:-( (Sad, frown)
;-) (Wink, pun, silly joke)
:-D (Big grin)
:-O (Oh, I'm shocked! ; scream, yell)
:-] (Sarcastic smile; I get it!)
Some do's and don'ts to keep in mind when using e-mail include:
As in web site URLs, each character in an e-mail address helps to deliver the message to the proper person. Generally, the first section of the e-mail address - before the "@" ("at") sign - is the individual's identification, or name. Everything after the "@" sign (usually the domain name and type) directs the message to the proper home or business location. Note that capitalization is not important in e-mail addresses, but is critical in locating web sites.
E-mail is transmitted in a similar manner to requesting a web page. First, the sender types an e-mail message, and hits the SEND command. The message is routed through the sender's ISP's mail server and forwards it to a router. A router server on the internet transmits the e-mail to one or more other routers. In fact, many times the message is broken up into packets; a one-paragraph message may be broken up into several packets and reassembled at the receiver's ISP mail server. The message is then sent, in one piece, to the recipient's computer.
Other Uses of the Internet and the Web. Many web users participate in mailing lists or listservs. Mailing lists are topic-specific, and can be very useful for keeping up-to-date on current happenings in many different environments. Members of mailing lists receive daily e-mails on one topic in which members "discuss" the topic. Any member can post a question, or message, to the list. Mailing lists can either be moderated (one person reviews each message for credibility and appropriateness before posting to the list), or unmoderated (every message anyone in the group submits is posted to the entire list). To find a mailing list of interest, visit www.liszt.com; this site lists thousands of listservs with instructions how to join. To join a mailing list, you generally need to send an e-mail to either MAJORDOMO or LISTSERV, with a message stating SUBSCRIBE XXXXlist your name. If you'd like to join a purchasing-related list, send an e-mail to listserv@email@example.com and/or firstname.lastname@example.org. Immediately after joining, you usually receive a confirming e-mail in your in-box. You will now begin receiving the messages and can begin participating. When communicating to the entire group, your e-mail message will need to be addressed differently from your subscribe message. It is also important to keep the instructions for removing your name from the list, in case the content is not what you're interested in. Usually, you'll need to send a message - stating UNSUSBSCRIBE XXXXlist your name - to the same location at which you subscribed.
There are also thousands of newsgroups, topical bulletin boards, and chat rooms/forums available on the internet. Newsgroup categories range from .biz (business topics) to .sci (scientific topics) and .alt (alternative topics). Chat differs from e-mail in that a number of users are logged on at the same time and carry on a "live" conversation by typing back and forth.
Finding Information quickly and conveniently is probably the most popular use of the internet and the web (after e-mail). There are several high-quality search engines available free of charge, enabling you to search by keyword, category, phrase, or concept. Examples of search engines include:
Yahoo - www.yahoo.com
Netscape - www.netscape.com
AltaVista - www.altavista.com
Lycos - www.lycos.com
When users are just beginning to learn the use the internet, they are labeled "newbies." So that you'll get up to speed most quickly on using the web effectively, here are a few sites to help:
How Can Purchasers Best Use the Internet and the Web? Using search engines to research general and product information about current and potential suppliers is one way in which purchasing professionals use the web today. Some purchasers are even conducting complete electronic commerce using the net, ranging from sourcing suppliers to purchasing and paying for a product/service. The most likely ways purchasers will use the web include the following (all listed on NAPM's web site):
Security is of great concern to most people using the internet. Secure online transaction standards are currently being tested by a number of banks and credit card companies, and are due to be integrated industry-wide by the end of 1997. For example, Mastercard and Visa have agreed to use SET - Secure Electronic Transactions; American Express is involved in setting OBI - Online Buying on the Internet - standards. At that time, individuals and organizations can feel confident that their procurement card numbers will be safe as they travel from your computer to the site you're ordering from.
It remains to be seen whether negotiations can take place over the internet. With the continual increase in bandwidth and graphical capabilities, full-motion videoconferencing - in which both supplier and purchaser can see each other using the net and a small camera on top of each computer - may enable live discussions and negotiations to take place.
NAPM's Use of the Web. NAPM has had a large presence on the world wide web since June 1995, when our first home page was unveiled. Our most recent redesign, in November 1996, was undertaken to offer purchasers easy access to association and purchasing-related information any time of day or night. NAPM offers online education programs as well as a section just for Members. Members can search through close to 1,500 articles previously published by NAPM; search for employment opportunities and post jobs or resumes; and look for speakers for affiliate and/or district educational events.
What Will the Future Bring? During the past year (1996), intranets have become quite popular. Intranets use the same browsing and language protocols as the internet, but only communicate with others in the same internal organization. Intranets often function as the corporate network, and are used for internal communications, corporate databases, sales/marketing data and training, internal scheduling, collaborative project/document work (online whiteboards), and HR policy manuals. Additionally, electronic purchase orders, company terms and conditions, and company-specific contract writing/management tools often reside on intranets. Two of the major advantages to setting up an intranet include the lack of security concerns (all data stays inside the company), and elimination of bandwidth considerations (since data only has to travel through the internal network and not over outside telephone lines).
With the proper firewalls and additional security, internal corporate databases can be linked to customers and/or suppliers. These systems are known as extranets, since they allow data proprietary to the organization to be accessed by the outside world. Generally, security is very tight on these communications. Many times only a portion of the database can be accessed, and only by using security passwords.
Additionally, once bandwidth increases, and faster modems become more ubiquitous, use of audio and video will become more widespread. Desktop videoconferencing may enable purchasers and suppliers to conduct meetings, and perhaps even negotiations, in a modified "face-to-face" format.
Online distance education and training is another exciting use of the net and the web. Many different types of online courses have emerged over the past twelve months, including college-credit courses, continuing education programs, and certification programs. Courses designed for web delivery include text, interactive forums/e-mail, and live chat, and should be designed with adult learning principles in mind. Now that bandwidth capabilities are increasing, audio, video, and extensive graphical support for educational programs are showing up in courses that were previously strictly text-based.
Conclusion. The explosion of the internet and the world wide web over the past three years has opened up many business opportunities and new business models. This emerging, and constantly changing, technology will offer unlimited challenges as well as opportunities for the purchasing professional. It's critical that we all pay close attention to the rapid changes in the electronic commerce environment.