Who moved my “E”s?

There has always been a Rule of Three for measuring impacts on popular culture and it goes something like this. If it happens twice, it’s a fad. If it happens three times, it’s a trend. If it happens more than three times, it is a phenomenon that is sweeping the globe and changing life as we know it.

For the last three or four years, it was hard to gauge how posterity would judge the “e.” As the modifier for all things IT, it certainly surpassed the three-mark. E-mail. E-commerce. E-business. That should have been enough for anyone. But no — soon there were e-marketplaces, e-learning programs and e-procurement strategies.

Things got out of hand during the dot-com boom period of 1999-2000, when the language was butchered by the “e” to the point where I forbade certain words to be used in our stories. “E-tailers” was one of them. It still makes me cringe. So did “E-pparel,” a term that actually became the title of a U.S. trade magazine, and “e-attachment opener,” which described a surprisingly useful product for opening up documents that landed in my inbox.

It didn’t stop there, of course. As though to demonstrate how in touch with the Zeitgeist they were, many young startups took the “e” as part of their corporate name, creating brands before they could become jargon on their own. These include Canada Post’s Epost, e-Route and, most successfully, eBay.

The whole movement reached its breaking point for me when I listened to Sun “the dot in dot-com” Microsystems chairman Scott McNealy deliver a speech a year ago at a Canadian Club luncheon in Toronto. As one of the most derivative minds in the business (see StarOffice), McNealy couldn’t wait to prove how quickly he had gone with the flow. As he urged corporate enterprises to formulate an Internet strategy, he left us with the following thoughts: “If there’s an e-bear in the woods, you’d better get your e-running shoes on, because otherwise you won’t be eating lunch, you’ll be lunch.”

It almost made me think Anthony Robbins could run Sun Microsystems.

With the dot-com market having imploded under the weight of poor business plans and a failure to secure the capital needed for long-term growth, there was every reason to suspect that the “e” would become a sort of Lost Vowel in the high-tech history books.

In fact, there was a brief moment when this Web site was to be called eBusiness.ca, but I nixed it. We own the domain name, and it matches with the brand name of one of our monthly titles, eBusiness Journal, but I believe our mandate is broader than the “e.” There was IT before the “e,” even though it would be a mistake to call this the year 1 A.E. (for “after ‘e'”). Of course, I’ve heard that to many people, the “e” is now redundant. As a colleague once said to me, “eBusiness Journal is like having a magazine about how businesses use the telephone.” I think that’s short-sighted: the telephone certainly transformed communications, but it only involved one form of data — voice — whereas e-business concerns the interplay of many audio and printed formats in a wide variety of complex scenarios.

The “e” has triumphed precisely because it modifies but does not qualify. The notion of “m-commerce,” for example, has not captured the public’s imagination because there are no truly mobile applications; we can send mail as easily to our desktops as our cell phones. The same is true for “c-commerce” because collaborative applications are still, in the end, electronic applications. The “e” will disappear only when the task it modifies has become so entrenched it nearly wipes out the traditional means of doing something. How often, for example, do you refer to “checking your mail,” when you really mean your e-mail?

By now, the “e” should be about as popular as Bobby McFerrin’s “Don’t Worry, Be Happy.” Instead it crossed a threshold to find a permanent place in our collective consciousness. No matter how the story plays out, this Age of Information will have been brought to you by the letter “e.”

sschick@plesman.com

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