The edge of a hurricane

  Surfers - the real ones, tall, gorgeous, and thick as the planks they ride on - love hurricanes, or so I'm told. Around the fringes of a storm, the waves are perfectly sized for having fun: larger than usual, but not overwhelming. In a similar way, the edges of an economic revolution are the place to be. Right now, if you go shopping for air fares, you are just at the edge of the hurricane, and it's a fun place to be.

I wanted to go to Rome last week, and so rang a couple of the budget air fare companies, Go, and Virgin Express, to find out what it would cost to fly from Stanstead. They were having a well-publicised price war in the summer, in which the benchmark figure for the flight was 100 return. Obviously, this price was reached using complex compression methods which don't work down a phone line. The booking offices I rang quoted 197 (Virgin) and 185 (Go) for a return flight.

On their web sites, things were utterly transformed. One point of computerising the whole process is so that prices can be changed constantly to match demand. This has the slightly surreal effect that it can be much cheaper to come back from Rome than to go there. Virgin, for example, would fly me back from Rome for 39 - but wanted 99 to fly me there. Then, at the very last screen of the booking process, they demanded another 20 for airport taxes. Very Richard Branson.

At Go's web site the rate was 50 to go to Rome and 30 to fly back: less than half the price quoted down the telephone. The company explains this partly as a promotional offer: they want people to book over the web. But it must also reflect gigantic savings to Go. Customers who use the web are bad news for everyone currently employed to sit at a desk, with all the animation of a plastic fish, and key in details that customers give them: the clerks in travel agents are only the first victims.. The web lets me do my own typing. There must be millions of people currently employed to feed data of this sort into their companies' computers. They will all be sacked.

One obvious effect is that tickets disappear. Go simply sent a fax confirming the reservation. My right to travel exists solely in the memory of their computer. This does raise worrying issues of security. If all the arrangements of a commercial society live inside computers, there has to be some way to keep them safe there, and some way to work when the computers don't. Plenty of people are wary of sending their credit card details over the Internet; and one of the most shocking parts of booking my flight that way was to discover that Go's web site, unlike Virgin's (or Amazon.com's) has no specially secured link for taking credit card details. That makes it as unsafe as reading your card details down the phone to a stranger. But companies that sell this way will no longer have to hire people to sit, hour after hour, taking down phone details and reading from a script.

This is what E-commerce means. It is an unlovely term for a hurricane and no one knows quite when it will really hit the world: estimates for the value of business done like that in the year 2000 vary from $4bn to $200bn. An awful lot of this uncertainty is related to the technical and political difficulties of making the Net secure for commerce. But sooner or later, the hurricane is coming, and it will end when almost any commodity can sold by self-service: even intangible goods, like holiday destinations

Well done sites are among the best way I know to plan a journey. The best I have ever found was the tourist site of the Bavarian town of Regensburg, a quit place in which nothing much seems to have happened since about 1560. This has all the usual pictures and lists of hotels. But it also has a detailed map of the city centre, on which all the hotels are marked: you can jump from the map to their web sites (which are more or less the same as the brochures); or you can sort through the hotels by price, and then jump to see where each one is on the map.

There's nothing as good as that for Rome. The Vatican site is gorgeous, but not much use for accommodation, unless you have a personal invitation from the Pope, and at the New Statesman these are only handed out to deputy editors and above.

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