You can't always get what you want

There are some ideas that seem to have been waiting for the Internet to arrive. When someone explains the concept to you, it isn't rocket science, but if the Internet wasn't around, you'd be struggling for a way to reach the people who might want to use the service you've just heard about.

Such an idea crossed my browser space today. The US site www.imotors.com appears at first glance to be just another one of those sites that have a huge list of used cars for sale. We've all browsed those sites and they are indeed a lot more useful than their newsprint versions. For one thing, you can actually find all the cars that meet your criteria, even if the owner thinks that having it listed under 'bargain' is a good idea. Anything that has lots of entries and requires you to search for what you want is an obvious candidate for webification.

However, the imotors people are doing something that is possible offline but would be much harder to implement without a Web site. On their site you enter as many details as possible about the type of car you want to get your hands on. Then their staff trawl through all the available places that might be selling cars, by whatever means available. After they find a suitable vehicle, they drag it back to their workshop and give it a total makeover. That allows them to offer you the car with a money back guarantee and a warranty, something not too common in the used car marketplace.

What makes this business model possible is that you, the buyer, do most of the work by filling in their detailed forms. The vendor saves money by not having a carpark full of used vehicles hoping to attract your attention, and losing money daily on the idle capital and rent. They are able to go about the same business of acquiring a used car as hundreds of dealers do every day - but they already know that they have a buyer. All they need is an office for you to visit so you can hand over the money and take delivery of the car parked on the street outside.

It is the Internet that makes this model work so effectively. Sure, there are companies out there who already provide this sort of service, but they are mostly confined to the luxury end of town, where buyers can afford a personal locator service to go and hunt down what they want. The Internet makes the same personal service available to anyone with a browser.

This model, which uses the Net to improve on a basic service that we already know about, can legitimately claim to be part of the new economy. It really does offer something new, and something improved, compared to the way we are used to doing that business. It will only be a tragic waste if the concept stops with used cars and isn't extended by some dot-up-and-comer into other areas such as selling houses that actually suit the buyer's needs.

That might be a tough call, since real-life estate agents listen carefully to what you want and then show you something completely different in the forlorn hope that you will decide to shoot one child and no longer need three bedrooms. This common state of affairs should provide even more incentive for someone to build a site using the imotors concept, but applied to the most expensive purchase most of us make - the family home. Anything that saves the endless driving around the suburbs looking for the house with 'a sunny northerly aspect with ocean views from the verandah' would get my browser traffic.

Existing house-for-sale sites have certainly helped take the guess work out of the search, by showing photos of the dream homes on offer. But where's the detailed form for you to fill in that really tells the agent what you want? Perhaps there'd never be a home that met your dreams but surely an imotors-style Web site for houses could get you closer than any current offerings.

As far as I am aware, there isn't a similar service operating locally, on cars, houses or anything else that costs a pile of money, takes a long time to buy and usually ends up being completely unsuitable. But I'd be happy if you prove me wrong. E-mail: yates@idg.com.au

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Ian Yates

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