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2001 an online odyssey

There can be little doubt that this industry has seen an unparalleled period of activity in the e-commerce arena in the last 12 months. Can it be that it is really a year since we waited with bated breath for the clock to strike midnight to see if our computers would all decide it was 1900?

Actually, I think most people woke up with varying degrees of hangover and, in the absence of panic calls from the office, assumed the world had not ended. Having started with the biggest non-event of the year before anyone even got back to work, it has mostly been a year of success stories.

It is often said that business on the internet moves as qui ckly in three months as in a year in the conventional economy. I think a look at all that has been delivered over the last 12 months suggests how true that is.

As a direct result of everyone having been so focused on Y2K issues, it would be fair to say that there was a paucity of new service in the first quarter of the year but by the spring things were really beginning to look up.

A number of new life office extranets appeared, one of the most attractive being the Scotam-adviser.co.uk service, which still sets the benchmark against which online group pension offerings sho uld be judged.

The spring also saw the launch of AssureWeb&#39s IFA Window service, offering all IFAs the chance to have their own web presence free of charge. Those who wanted something a bit more substantial could subscribe for a low-cost, added-value site, including the My World area allowing each client to have their own dedicated area within an adviser site. While there are more advanced client servicing offerings available from other providers, AssureWeb has certainly led the way in providing these services to advisers at minimal cost.

EMX managed to get its service to go live in the spring, within its stated timescale. Although initial use of the service was minimal, it does deserve credit for having the courage to recognise towards the end of the year that charging IFAs to use their service was unrealistic and taking steps to make all IFA access free. As a result I expect the service to have a far brighter future.

May also saw the launch of the Misys M-Link service, rather later than the company had itself predicted although I think Misys were the only people who thought the orig inal dates they were talking about were realistic. This service has still to become sufficiently populated with product pro viders to be able to be as valuable to advisers as it might be.

This is a common problem across all the portal services and I believe it is essential in the New Year that life offices find ways of accelerating the speed at which they can link to more portals more quickly. There are a number of ways in which this can be achieved and these should now be given serious consideration.

In the summer, it was the turn of the fund supermarkets to take centre stage. In addition to a number of directto-consumer offerings, both Fid elity and Skandia appearing to achieve spectacular success in attracting business from advisers.

The additional facilities provided by Fidelity to allow lar ger IFAs to “white-label” these services into their own web presence, combined with their similar service for smaller IFAs available via The Exchange&#39s Adviser Web Builder product are an excellent example of how all IFAs can actually deploy services to generate business online.

In the last few months, the life offices&#39 new business e-commerce project has delivered no less than four comp eting service providers with offerings for IFAs to use.

All we need now is for life offices to recognise that, as they are going to reap the bulk of the benefits of these services, they need to put their hands in their pockets and deliver product enhancements to benefit consumers and IFAs.

If they fail to do this, I fear will still be staring at lots of technology doing nothing this time next year.

The last couple of months have seen triumphs and disasters for The Exchange. Agreeing a deal to sell the moneyextra.com consumer brand to Bristol & West for £26m in the same week when another personal finance web site (The Street.co.uk) shut up shop seems to me no small feat. This, combined with the acquisition of the Crisp Com puting business seems give the clearest possible indication that they are returning to a strict business-to-business focus.

Many IFAs have argued for a long time that they should concentrate on this area. Despite the fact that these deals remove the cash burn associated with their previous position as a dotcom business and appear to put the group on a very healthy footing for the future, for some reason, the benefits have yet to reflect in the share price which can currently only be described as a disaster.

In the last week Assure-Web has launched its Prod pak research database and comparative term service to the market and at long last we are seeing signs of some of the emerging portals putting up a range of services that may be able to challenge the dominant position of The Exchange as a service provider.

Having launched these services, the challenge for all portals will be to make sure they can cope with a volume of quotations of up to a million a month. So far, it has been very easy for the new entrants to criticise The Exch ange in the absence of their own equivalent offerings. From now on, things will really get interesting.

We are, however, still only just beginning. As competing services are emerging, the main complaint from all the existing players and new entrants alike is they are suffering from a lack of insurer resource.

To be fair, I think virtually all insurers would accept this. If there is a single challenge for 2001, it is to identify how all the players in the market, service providers, IFAs and product providers can move forward in concert. Sadly at the moment, this is still not happening as well as it might be.

It has been a fascinating year for industry technology. A great deal has happened in a very short time. The one thing you can be sure of for next year is even more will happen. I cannot wait.

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