Posted by: nickgerlich | January 14, 2008

Clicking Away

I suppose I could launch the semester with yet another of my tired metaphors of us all being on some mystical academic journey. I suppose it was pretty cool the first time I spun that tale, but, like all new things, the luster often fades. As Wired Magazine likes to label products and ideas, they go from “wired” to “tired” to “expired.”

I just hope that I am not in the latter category for a long time.

No, this time I will begin by telling of a journey that I was on. Over the Holiday break, I once again led a group of bicyclists around Florida on an 830-mile odyssey through the orange groves, sugar cane fields, and strawberry patches of the central and southern parts of the states. It was a motel-to-motel tour de force at 18-22mph, which leaves a lot of time for thinking and reflection as the miles click by.

Shopping CartIt was somewhere around Day 6 of this journey that my mind wandered from the chill in the air (it actually got cold in Florida for a couple of days), and on to the topic of my teaching this semester. E-Commerce. Hmmm. What an enormously huge topic this was just a decade ago. There was more buzz than in the middle of a beehive. Would this be the killer bee of modern business? Or just flash in the pan?

No sooner had e-commerce lifted off in the 1990s, than they were contacting Houston that there was a problem. Seems that a lot of the great new ideas were, well…overstocked with web designers and venture capitalists, and understocked with customers. It all came crashing back to earthly reality around the turn of the century. And if you’d like to see a cinematic retelling of one of the horror stories, check your local bargain bin for a copy of It’s enough to cause any VC mogul to rethink their giddy ways.

So as I pedaled along, I contemplated what has become of e-commerce in the last decade or so. I initially proposed this course back in 1999, and was immediately wrist-slapped for even thinking we should offer a course in something so new and yet-unproven. But once my superior “birthed” the idea himself, suddenly I was given the OK to proceed.

The dotcom bust that immediately ensued was enough to give everyone pause (and to no one’s surprise, the idea for an e-commerce course was shifted back to yours truly). But you know what? Just as the US pulled itself together after 911, so did e-commerce. Sure, a lot of people lost a lot of money (Jimmy Buffett has an interesting way of saying how he once plowed through money), but cooler heads prevailed, and ideas were evaluated before they were funded. Kind of like the old Zenith tag line: The quality went in before the name went on.

Today, we are living out the second stage of the evolution of e-commerce, collectively known as Web 2.0. There is excitement and buzz once again among the dotcom players. Sure, it is possible we could face another shakeout one day, but we have proven that the idea has legs.

As I rode among the oranges and grapefruits, though, I suddenly realized that in just a few short years, e-commerce has matured from novelty to just a basic staple, a necessity of doing business. In fact, even the very subject matter (academically speaking) has evolved from “very cool topic” to just another class to take…kind of like Finance, Accounting, and MIS. It is an essential part of any student’s training.

Which leads me to my point: E-commerce has become cliche. Remember when Expedia’s TV ad jingle was cool? You know…”Expedia dot com!.” Now it is no big deal. Yeah, so what. You have a website. Who doesn’t?

Although I wouldn’t say my views are jaded, I will say that e-commerce is about as cool as having an email address, an iPod, a blog, a cell phone, a digital camera, etc. Essential, yes. Cool? No. The hot topic today in academia is the “New Media” classes being taught by my friends over in Mass Comm. But one day they, too, will lose their luster, and become part and parcel of a standard education.

Which means that as I rode around Florida for my 12th time, I realized I had seen this all before. The palm trees. The endless groves. The lonely roads through the interior, the “real Florida” tourists do not normally see. But it is a journey I needed to take anyway, for my sanity, for my fitness. And even though I have been there before, I always come away with something new.

In a mystical kind of way, of course.

Dr “The Tan Already Fadeth” Gerlich


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