Time to drop the 'e'

There's no such thing as e-commerce. Or e-health. Or cloud computing. Or cybersecurity. Or cybercrime. Or cyber-anything. Keep using those terms and you'll limit your thinking.

Now of course every aspect of our lives is being changed dramatically as we connect everything to everything else. There's far, far more change still to come.

But here in Australia, the richest country in the world, the key first step has already happened. The internet is no longer some special, separate place that we visit from time to time.

The vast majority of us are connected, almost all with broadband. More Australians have a Facebook profile than not, to pick the most obvious example. And we're infested with smartphones.

The danger of all these e- and cyber- terms is that they perpetuate the idea of the internet as a separate place, encouraging us to build separate e- and cyber- organisations. That in turn creates the risk of seeing only half the picture.

"When we look at the convergence of online and offline, it's not e-commerce any more. It's just commerce," said Scott Shipman, eBay's global privacy leader, on a recent Patch Monday podcast.

"People are shopping with phones in the store, price-checking items, seeing where local alternatives for those items may be, then either purchasing online or going back to the store and saying, 'Hey I can get this item for a cheaper price over here, do you want to honour the price?'"

There's no clear boundaries between e and non-e in that scenario. The only way a business can operate effectively here is for this internet thing to be so well-integrated, so pervasive in the organisation that it's invisible.

If you ignore the fact that some of the interactions just happen to take place online, then the business can concentrate on the commerce itself. Connecting with customers, offering a good deal and better service. Choosing how and where that interaction takes place is then just a matter of what's more effective for the business or, more importantly, the customer.

Same goes for cloud computing. It's nothing new. We've had network computing, distributed computing, grid computing. It's just the latest term for stuff happening on a computer that's not directly in front of you and that might not be directly under control.

My favourite definition comes from information security master Jon Callas, currently chief technology officer at Entrust: "Ages ago, Butler Lampsom gave the aphorism that distributed computing is what you have when you can't get your work done because some computer you've never heard of has crashed, and cloud computing is the realisation of that dream."

The Australian government has developed a Cloud Computing Strategic Direction Paper, but that begs the question. On a recent panel discussion Vito Forte, chief information officer at Fortescue Metals Group, asked that question.

"Why do you need a cloud strategy?" he said. "Cloud is an element of your overall strategy. It's [just] a way to do things."

The answer came from Microsoft Australia chief technology officer Greg Stone.

"If you go back to the days when we had e-commerce, right? I said, well, it's commerce. Well, the reality was for a lot of organisations it wasn't, because they hadn't internalised that. So they had to put this epithet on the front in order to get people swerving around to say, well, you need to actually include this thing in there because it's different," he said.

"I think cloud in many ways is exactly the same at the moment. We've put cloud in front of things, we've probably overdone it as an industry, in order to get people's attention."

He's right. The questions should really be about the most effective way of delivering your IT infrastructure, taking into account price, performance, risk, compliance needs and all the rest. The result will automatically be what's often called a hybrid cloud, with some components in public clouds like Amazon's and Google's, some in private clouds, and some kept on-premises in the traditional way.

So I put it to Stone that anything being described as cloud means the person talking to you doesn't actually understand what they're taking about.

"Or they think you don't," he said.

Now the military gets this, or at least some parts of it.

While I've never been able to verify it, during the Balkan War of the early 1990s the US supposedly dealt with a website publishing inconvenient propaganda not by hacking it but by blowing it away with a cruise missile.

Not long after that, a special forces soldier showed me the most effective way to obtain the root or administrator password for a server: he grabbed me by the throat, put a (mock) gun to my head, and said: "Password! Now! Or I'll blow your f***ing brains out!".

And as one speaker at the RSA security conference in San Francisco said in February, if you're landing the marines on a hostile beach then you'll make sure you're also disrupting the enemy's communications, whether electronically or with good old-fashioned bombs.

When it comes to cybercrime, technology certainly allows things like romance scams to be run from offshore and automated to handle large volumes of victims. But they're still just crimes, and the perpetrators still exist in the physical world.

So Detective Superintendent Brian Hay of the Queensland Police sends some of his officers to Moscow to enlist their help at that end. Sure, it puts noses out of joint at the Australian Federal Police, because they see the overseas trips as falling into their purview, but it gets crimes solved.

In all these scenarios, online and offline are blurred and eventually become irrelevant. As they should be in business.