Data that delivers

Microsoft's venture into electronic shopping is part of a trend to consumer-friendly technology.
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Indy Lifestyle Online
Computers are messy things. Everything from the mouse to the motherboard comes in a bewildering range of specifications, protocols and standards. And that is before you get to the bits and bytes, where confusion reaches fever pitch. The result is that, for all the advances of modern information technology, it is often hugely complicated to perform the simplest of tasks.

How many PC owners rejoiced when they upgraded to Windows 95 and were able to name files with more than eight characters? Or how many business users still get that warm feeling when they import information from a spreadsheet to a word processor? Any outsider - provided they could work out what on earth you were talking about - would think that both these achievements were basic indeed.

If anything marks the IT developments of 1997, it will be the push towards genuinely open computers which can deliver data "any-to-any", be the "any" another box, a printer, a screen or even a user. All you will have to do is point and click, or drag and drop.

Microsoft, for one, appears to have recognised this imperative. With its launch into the buying and selling of goods over the Internet last week, Simon Brown, head of electronic commerce, declared: "This is a milestone event because we are seeing clear action over hype."

The hype is Internet banking, shopping, booking and billing. The action is that a few merchants are now piloting World Wide Web sites that really do sell goods into the home.

As the manager of "Shoppers Universe" Internet mall commented: "I am now able to remain a retailer and not have to become a technology developer."

At what point the consumer will be able to consume angst-free, without having to take a technology degree or at least read a several-hundred- page manual, is another question. Bill Gates has committed Microsoft to finding an "intelligent, adaptive user interface", which is short for "easy to use".

But for now most people will probably take a lot of persuading - as Oxford Cottons has demonstrated. Its Web site, which retails rugby shirts and other sporty paraphernalia, currently features a Yuletide beer offer to encourage visits. A beer-swilling fan sitting patiently at a Web browser is an example of "any-to-any" if ever there was one