What is the next big thing in ecommerce? There are probably as many answers to that question as there are commercial web sites. But one man whose opinions and actions have been closely tracked in recent years is Nick Ogden, a Jersey-based entrepreneur who can claim a series of ecommerce firsts.
Ogden is not so much a deep thinker or visionary as an ecommerce practitioner who has a knack of seeing problems and creating groundbreaking solutions.
For Ogden, the adventure began back in 1994. It was more than a year before the Internet browser company Netscape was to go public and trigger the dot-com boom, and Ogden was working with Sony on publishing electronic books. At the Frankfurt Book Fair, he first saw the Mosaic browser (on which Netscape and later Explorer were based) and was hooked.
Within a year, he had set up a small company and launched Europe's first online shop – the Wine Warehouse, backed by the world's first ever electronic cash purse, the Jersey Card. Given Jersey's tiny size, the prospects for the Wine Warehouse were never great. But the infrastructure caught the imagination of executives at Barclays Bank's Barclaycard unit, and together they launched the first bank-endorsed ecommerce web site, BarclaySquare.
Ogden's innovation continued. He quickly realised that foreign visitors to the site could not pay in their own currency. Barclaycard did not have a multi-currency payments system, but rival bank NatWest had produced a non-Internet based system for its client, British Airways. Ogden cut a deal to take its technology and Internet-enable it.
Shortly after the system was ready, in August 1997, Princess Diana was killed, and Ogden, backed by just one small team in NatWest, offered to process the payments for a memorial web site. The story hit the front pages, sending tremors through NatWest, whose executives knew nothing of the project. The new system, WorldPay, was born in a blaze of publicity.
WorldPay quickly became the dominant system for processing online transactions and a huge commercial success. But Ogden and WorldPay continued to innovate, building its own risk processing system that enabled WorldPay to guarantee Internet transactions. Ogden's team also worked with Vodafone to produce the M-Pay electronic wallet – which uses the mobile phone billing systems to pay for Internet transactions.
Eventually, in 2002, Royal Bank of Scotland, now the owner of NatWest, bought WorldPay for £40 million. After the takeover, Ogden, heavily restricted by non-compete agreements, was free to explore new opportunities.
Fortunately for him, those non-competes have not seriously limited his ability to focus on what he considers to be the next big thing: ‘voice commerce'. This, he says, is "the biggest step forward in ecommerce in a decade" and is the most exciting thing he has been involved in since the opening up of the Internet back in 1994.
His argument – familiar to many – is that typing and text are an unnatural way for people to trade with each other. They prefer to talk. By exploiting the convergence of voice and data using the IP protocol, a huge new market opportunity will arise.
Analysts estimate that about a quarter of all Internet transactions are abandoned by consumers and never subsequently re-initiated. That amounts to $2 billion in lost sales every year.
Ogden's new company, Voice Commerce, offers a service (called ‘Hello') that enables companies to quickly ‘paste' a voice enabling button into their web site, which visitors can click on to begin a voice-over-IP (VoIP) call. A second operation, White Phone, enables business to set up a virtual VoIP exchange. A third service enables users to make, receive and manage voice calls over the Internet.
Will Ogden blaze another trail along the lines of WorldPay? That is possible, but unlikely: the Internet is a more populated and stable place than it was a decade ago.
But service operators and web site operators take note: one of the Internet's most influential pioneers is gambling large amounts of his own money on online voice technology – and that may indeed signal the next wave of ecommerce.