The strategic implications of the Internet are far-reaching—for global commerce, for global marketing and for global market research. But because of the competitive struggle the Internet has launched, no one is clever enough to accurately predict where it will all lead. The second- and third-order effects and consequent reactions make prediction almost impossible.

The Internet is already firmly established as a new worldwide communication medium. Messages can be sent and received around the clock, and no one need answer a phone or be in the office for the message to get through. No telephone tag. No waiting up for that midnight call from Japan. Messages are in writing, so they are easy to print or save. Response is quick and efficient.

The only cumbersome element in this otherwise sanguine picture is the list of unwieldy and complex e-mail addresses required by the Internet. But not to worry. As software systems get better, this problem should largely disappear.

One of the most significant and pervasive implications of the Internet will be the diffusion of Western culture and influence—especially that of the United States—around the globe. A majority of the programming content of the Internet originates in the United States. The Internet is largely run, accessed and controlled by U.S. software. U.S. products, services, information and entertainment dominate the Internet. The English language, already established as the first language of international commerce, will spread even more rapidly and become even more dominant as the language of international commerce and conversation. The Internet—like the movies, music and television—is a marketing agent for American culture.

The Internet as a Marketing Tool

Another major impact of the Internet is its role as a worldwide advertising media for companies and brands. Naturally, the Internet’s advertising value and role will vary greatly depending on the product category, but the Internet is likely to complement traditional media, not replace it. The Internet’s primary advantage in advertising is not so much in attracting attention and conveying a brief message (the tasks assigned to traditional advertising media), but lies instead in delivering in-depth, detailed information once initial interest is triggered by conventional advertising.

The Internet is becoming a vast new distribution system for anything that can be “shipped” electronically. Financial services, insurance services, information services, all types of data, computer software and computer games, are all examples of products or services that can be wholly or largely distributed via the Internet. Music and video entertainment are also being distributed through the Internet.

The Internet is also rapidly becoming a major shopping medium. Internet shopping is being increasingly substituted for traditional retail stores. Virtual stores, created online, replace, or have the potential to replace, conventional retail stores for many products. Consumers can shop for cars, furniture, houses, groceries, books, drugs and clothing without ever leaving the comfort and security of their homes.

As Internet shopping grows in sophistication and popularity, traditional retail stores may be negatively impacted. Some types of retail space and retail real estate will face declining demand and falling prices as consumers replace retail shopping with online shopping. Conversely, shipping and delivery services, especially those with worldwide networks, will experience booming business as they deliver the products sold over the Internet.

The Internet will be a boon to direct marketers of all types. Online, interactive Websites will offer consumers much better “catalogs” to browse and buy from than traditional printed catalogs and other direct marketing vehicles. These online catalogs will cost much less to create, maintain and “distribute,” compared to printing and mailing paper catalogs. Additionally, the online shopping sites will be superior to any printed catalogs. Online sites allow user interaction, branching, demonstration of products and services, and an easy, efficient means of placing orders 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Traditional catalogs do not have a bright future. However, direct marketers will be forced to resort to much higher levels of media advertising to support their Websites, compared to the past when the printed catalog served a dual function as advertising and a shopping catalog.

Data Engine

The Internet will increasingly become a worldwide data collection vehicle for many types of market research, including business-to-business as well as consumer re-search. It can provide a cost-efficient medium for conducting research, at least in the United States, Canada, Western Europe and many parts of Asia. Longer term, the Internet will be-come a worldwide data collection vehicle. Upper income, better educated households around the globe (whose households account for the bulk of worldwide discretionary income) and the vast majority of significant businesses will subscribe to and use the Internet within the next two to three years. Already in the United States, about 25 percent of the adult population has access to the Internet at home or at work. It is currently estimated that more than 15 million households in the United States subscribe to some type of Internet service. These penetration levels are increasing rapidly in the United States, as presumably they are in other developed countries as well.

The Internet promises to speed the Americaniza-tion (or at least the West-ernization) of the world, to enhance worldwide communications, to build a vast new distribution system for intangible products, to serve as a new worldwide advertising media and an exciting new “catalog” for direct marketers, and to provide a pervasive new data collection tool for market researchers everywhere. These are but a few of the most likely implications of the Internet, but it would be foolish to suppose that we can see very far into the future, or see that future very clearly. Much of the value and the precise role of the Internet remains clouded and obscure to the dull human eye, but its usefulness will undoubtedly unfold like the wings of an emerging butterfly as we move bravely ahead into the electronic future.