Column: Disintermediation looks bad for middlemen

In future people whose job it is to perform intermediary functions could be done out of a livelihood unless they move their services to the World Wide Web.

People whose job it is to perform intermediary functions could soon be done out of a livelihood unless they move their services to the World Wide Web. The academic jargon for it is "disintermediation" but most of us are more familiar with the phrase "cutting out the middleman".

"From EDI and shared databases to phone and television retailing and now the Web, the trends lean relentlessly toward diminishing the distance between vendor and customer. For a broker or any middleman, the time bomb is ticking," says Nicholas Imparato, a University of San Francisco professor and author of Jumping the Curve: Innovation and Strategic Choice in an Age of Transition (Jossey-Bass Publishers, 1994).

Already in the United States real estate agents (and their commissions) are being cut out of the loop by enterprising Internet users who put a picture of their house on the Net and sell it that way.

However, New Zealand agency Harcourts aims to beat the do-it-yourselfers by setting up its own Web site to sell houses. Photographs accompany most properties advertised, but now Harcourts is about to go one step further--virtual open homes.

Harcourts has commissioned Tristan Mason of Interzone Productions to make QuickTime virtual reality representations of the insides of houses. Using panorama photos blended seamlessly together, the total interior of a house can be explored by mouse clicks. The user can zoom in and out of areas, jump from one room to another and even pick up and examine objects. Harcourts has yet to use it on its Web site, but for anyone who has tried to sell a house and got heartily sick of prospective buyers trooping through at all hours, the technology will be a welcome innovation.

The tourism sector is also turning to innovative ways to use the Net. Backpacker hostel and bed and breakfast proprietors seem quick to have realised that overseas visitors now often scan the Net before heading down under. Many have their own Web page and most allow reservations by email.

The same cannot yet be said for New Zealand airlines, however, as they do not offer online reservation services of the type which can be seen in other countries, such as at PC Travel in the US.

PC Travel is an online travel agency which lets you connect via telnet or the WWW, check fares and schedules, and make reservations, for which you must enter a credit card number. Data comes from APOLLO, the United Airlines reservation system. Tickets are issued through PC Travel, payment is by credit card and tickets are delivered by Federal Express. It can be found at http://www.pctravel.com, or telnet to pctravel.com.

Another career under threat of obsolescence is that of the stockbroker, now that online services can provide investors with slightly delayed stock exchange prices and financial advice can be had from sites such as the New Zealand Investment Centre (http://www.charm.net/~lordhill), the Iguana Homepage (http://www.iguana.co.nz) or Program Traders (http://www.inhb.co.nz/shares).

Perhaps these hapless middle-people should consider new careers as Web page designers, without whom the new Internet-based businesses would not be possible.

To ensure continuing high standards of Internet design in New Zealand, a group of Web designers has formed Web Designers of New Zealand.

One of the organisers, Dave Blyth, says that by uniting, Web designers can raise New Zealand's standards even higher to lead the world.

"I already correspond with many Web designers and we test new sites, ideas, animations and software on each other. We will hold forums, help charities and schools get Web sites up, discuss the latest software and talk in depth about Web design.

"We hope to work in with all ISPs and many software and hardware suppliers, possibly beta testing for some of them."

Although WDNZ is concerned mainly with the graphical side of the World Wide Web, it would also like to see an HTML writers' guild formed and a group for Java developers.

For more information, go to http://www.webdesign.co.nz/wdnz.

(Ria Keenan is a Computerworld writer. Email her at ria_keenan@idg.com.)

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