WWW FAQs: When did online commerce get started?

2004-04-01: Most people realized from the day the web was born that there would be commerce online. The problem was, of course, trust. First programmers had to create a way to make transactions secure; then users had to learn to trust secure sites. The second part is still going on today.

Listings of homes for sale and other efforts to use the web to help facilitate business appear in the archives of the NCSA What's New pages, which carried announcements of nearly every major website from 1993 to 1996. As for sales taking place entirely via the web, there were attempts to offer flower delivery and magazine subscriptions online at least as far back as early 1994. And, of course, "adult" materials were available for online purchase very early in the game as well; the adult entertainment industry was the first successful online business. But online commerce in general could not succeed until customers could expect that their personal information would be kept private.

The release of Netscape 1.0 in late 1994 introduced SSL (secure socket layer) encryption, which is used by all secure sites today. When you see a "lock" icon in the lower right corner of your browser window, you are on a secure site. This means that no one else can see the information you are sending to the website -- essential when you are carrying out a credit card purchase, or giving out personal information such as your shipping address. Of course, this does not mean that the computer the website runs on is properly secured, or that the employees are honest. But it does lower the risk of shopping online to roughly the level of using your credit card in a store or a restaurant.

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