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  1. The Rise of E-Commerce

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    The rise of e-commerce has had powerful ripple effects throughout our increasingly digital society. Let’s take a quick look at the growth of e-commerce, and what it means for your business.

    Current e-commerce statistics are eye-popping. According to Big Commerce, almost all Americans (95%) shop online at least once yearly– but 80% of us do so every single month. What’s more, 51% would rather shop online than in person. We’re shopping on the go more and more, too. In 2015, only 40% of all online purchases were made via a mobile phone, a share that will increase to 70% this year.

    Traditional brick-and-mortar stores are suffering as a result – several famous chains have closed in the relatively recent past, and many more have downsized dramatically. This has had a profound effect on real estate market as well, as you might imagine. In 2010, there were 35 million visits to malls, according to the real-estate research firm Cushman and Wakefield. By 2013, there were just 17 million visits. Obviously, it’s significantly more expensive to maintain a physical store than a virtual one — and further, people often shop at physical stores, and then order the item online wherever they can get the best deal.

    Some stores, like Macy’s, J.C. Penney’s (which both recently shuttered multiple locations), Kohl’s, Target, and even Walmart saw double-digit percentage growth in online sales last Christmas. But it remains to be seen whether these retail giants can keep pace with e-commerce giants.

    A side beneficiary of all this e-commerce activity is shipping companies, including the U.S. Postal Service, UPS, and FedEx. Amazon is exploring ways to circumvent these companies with drone delivery service, which is capable of delivering packages weighing five pounds or less to a customer in 30 minutes or faster. However, regulatory changes would have to occur for large-scale drone delivery to be feasible — currently, drones must remain in sight of the operator, and there are privacy issues related to flying drones over private property. But the prospect is tantalizing, and it will be fascinating to see if drone delivery becomes commonplace.

    Further innovations in the world of e-commerce could be related to the Internet of Things, and autonomous agents and things. Connected IoT objects could provide information that then enables businesses to give you personalized offers, while autonomous, self-driving cars deliver the parcels! But warehouse robots are already automating order fulfillment in e-commerce warehouses, increasing efficiency considerably.

    E-commerce is growing 23% per year, so it’s somewhat surprising that 46% of American businesses still don’t have an e-commerce website. If your business is planning to get into e-commerce, there are many different platforms, depending on your needs – everything from internet bazaars like eBay and Etsy designed for individuals to sell a few items, all the way up to enterprise solutions.

    If you sell items in a physical store and want to sell a few of them online, Amazon can list your products even if you don’t have your own e-commerce site. But if you’re ready to invest in your own e-commerce site, a variety of different platforms are available, depending on the size and scale of what you have in mind. Shopify, Big Cartel, 3D Cart, and Woo Commerce are a few of the most common for small to mid-size businesses. Enterprise-level solutions include Intershop, IBM Websphere, and Oracle’s ATG.

    In addition to delivering a superior user experience, an online store must be carefully marketed, integrated with Amazon and Google Shop, and the SEO must be effective. It’s a major challenge to get the word out about a new store – for most, e-commerce is not an “if you build it, they will come” proposition.

    Many factors influence where a customer will choose to shop online. But the three top influencers are price (87%), shipping cost and speed (80%) and discount offers (71%). To be successful, e-commerce sites must feature intuitive navigation, good photography, and ease of checkout with multiple payment options.

    Further, e-commerce sites require significantly more bandwidth than content-only sites. DQE can help by providing scalable bandwidth that keeps your site operating cleanly and quickly, which has a direct impact on sales – site slowness is a top reason shoppers say they would abandon a purchase.

    Reliability is critical. If your site is down, you’re missing potential new customers and turning off returning customers – they will shop somewhere else instead, and won’t return. Count on DQE for scalable, reliable bandwidth solutions to support your growing e-commerce business needs.

  2. Emerging Technologies: Autonomous Agents and Things

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    One of the hottest trends in technology is autonomous agents and things. That nebulous-sounding term is actually quite precise – it’s a technology that takes advanced machine learning a step further, so that it can make complex decisions on its own, or autonomously. This is beyond simple automation, where something happens automatically according to hard-and-fast rules. Instead, autonomous agents and things make reasoned decisions based on multiple factors about the current situation – they choose actions designed to meet a certain goal without the involvement of people.

    Examples include technologies like self-driving cars, advanced robotics, certain computer programs (including some viruses), or even something like a smart thermostat that senses when people are home and when they’re not, as well as other environmental changes, and adjusts accordingly – as opposed to one that is merely automated, running on a pre-programmed schedule.

    This is an emerging technology, but we can see its evolution in technology most of us encounter every day. For example, virtual assistants like Siri (Apple), Cortana (Microsoft) and Now (Google) began as little more than voice recognition search functions, but are now much more sophisticated. In fact, in 2016 Apple announced that it is allowing third-party apps to access Siri, so that users will be able to ask Siri to accomplish tasks such as sending payment or searching images. Eventually the user experience of a smartphone will likely have an autonomous agent as the entire user interface, rather than a screen full of buttons for different applications.

    Autonomous agents and things builds on the Internet of Things, in which devices are connected to the internet so that actionable data can be gathered. But the deluge of data provided by the IoT is becoming so overwhelming that it’s too much for humans to process. That’s where autonomous agents and things comes in — in the autonomous world, many technologies are interconnected and share data, and then act on it without the involvement of people. In fact, we’re now starting to refer to the Internet of Autonomous Things, or IoAT.

    Challenges with the technology

    We’re not close to the point where an autonomous agent could take over the world, as has been depicted in numerous sci-fi movies (2001: A Space Odyssey, or Her). But there are some significant, albeit more pedestrian, challenges to be addressed.

    Data security on the devices themselves is a significant problem, in that data can be easily recovered from decommissioned items such as smartphones – and people upgrade their phones at an extraordinarily rapid rate. And all kinds of IoT devices with capacity for storing and transmitting data are discarded frequently as well.

    But virtual data security is an even more significant issue. As we’ve seen, the IoT is vulnerable to hacks and security breaches. Currently, the most pervasive problem is that devices are inadequately protected by passwords, leaving them open to be recruited into giant, impersonal botnets used in distributed denial of service (DDoS) attacks. But as we move toward the Internet of Automated Things, where decisions are being made based on data collected by these devices, the potential implications of such hacks – either to the devices themselves, or the cloud where the data is stored – could become more directed, and even more serious.

    Furthermore, security issues – perceived as well as actual – might impact the growth of the technology in that they could cause people to distrust automated systems and things. We’ve already seen this effect with the IoT. It will be important for designers of automated consumer goods to learn from the mistakes of the IoT and effectively address security issues early in the technology’s evolution.

    Another potential issue for automated consumer goods is that people might find them too complicated to use. If, for example, consumers pay extra to buy cutting-edge automated thermostats but get frustrated trying to program them, they’ll give up on those advanced features and just use the manual settings – and might think twice before choosing an automated product again. To avoid this, designers will need to pay special attention to the user experience as they roll out new products.

    In the longer-term, liability will become more of an issue as systems become more and more autonomous – in other words, who will be held responsible if the system makes a decision that has harmful consequences? The manufacturer, or the owner of the system? It’s not difficult to imagine a scenario in which an autonomous system makes a decision that truly couldn’t be foreseen, especially as systems become more sophisticated. The regulatory framework will need to evolve along with the technology.

    Current applications of autonomous agents and things

    Computer programs are among the most well-developed applications of autonomous technology right now. For example, sophisticated supply chain management programs are capable of evaluating and reacting to needs such as ordering supplies, scheduling workers and so on without human involvement – going beyond simple automation.

    Driverless technologies are already utilized in cars – for example, cars that can park themselves into tight spaces, or automatically brake when they get too close to another car or object. Evolution of truly driverless cars isn’t far behind — in fact, experts think this is possible by 2021. Ford, Nissan, Google, BMW, General Motors, and Daimler are just a few of the big names working toward this goal. Data security is of particular importance with this potential application, as the implications of hacking could be dangerous or life-threatening.

    The world of autonomous agents and things is ever-changing. Keep up with your business’s advancing bandwidth demands with DQE’s secure fiber optic network services, where scalability is unlimited and customization is key.

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