E's a mystery Picture yourself hanging ten in the famed surf of Hawaii, enjoying a day of better-than-average waves, just having a totally tubular time. Now, imagine that the reason for the high surf is an incoming tropical storm and you missed the forecast this morning.

If that scenario seems gnawingly familiar, you're probably one of millions of people all over this Web-woven world trying to make sense of the Internet's impact on how we do business. For many, using the World Wide Web is not about carefree surfing any more. It's about survival in an increasingly merciless electronic commerce (or e-commerce ) marketplace.

Our featured new books this month deal with the anxiety that corporate managers, employees, and entrepreneurs are all feeling as they come to terms with the necessity of mastering e-commerce and other online competencies. At enterprises of all sizes in all industries, hallways are abuzz with nervous conversations about the huge opportunities waiting to be exploited on the Web and about the harsh blows that competition will deal to those who fail to exploit it properly.

It's inevitable that books about Web business would abound while it's a hot topic. But one new title stands out as the most lucidly argued of any I have seen, with the broadest relevance to a wide range of business situations: Dead Ahead: The Web Dilemma and the New Rules of Business, by Laurie Windham with Jon Samsel.

This is a book about real life, at a time when businesses are being forced into making high-stakes commitments to an evolving paradigm. I know from firsthand experience how baffling, frustrating, and even frightening it can be to decide how and where a company will make its early Web investments. It's easy to tell that the rules of business are indeed new, but it can be vexing to figure out how they apply in one's own case.

Windham, a San Francisco consultant, cuts to the core issues that business strategists need to focus on after they get past the initial acceptance of the Web as an inevitable part of their future. Windham guides the reader toward an understanding of how the Web reshapes nearly every aspect of business, from management structure to the most basic marketing premises to the new ways companies must approach their capital needs in the wired world and beyond. Dead Ahead is a first-rate prop to bolster the confidence of reluctant cybernauts.

Jonathan Ezor takes on many of the same issues in Clicking Through: A Survival Guide for Bringing Your Company Online (Bloomberg Press, $19.95, 1576600734). Offering an attorney's perspective but also an entrepreneur's mind-set, lawyer and columnist Ezor sets out a primer to help small businesses cope with the dangers inherent in Web-based business.

Those risks, as he makes clear, are both legal and tactical. It's as easy to infringe someone else's copyright inadvertently online as it is for someone else to poach your own. There's a world's worth of law and regulation that even a well-meaning Web site can transgress. Questions can arise about just who owns the material your company pays Web developers to create. The devil lurks in the details of contracts with technology vendors such as Web hosts, and the other party to the contract may be the only one with a full knowledge of those details. Ezor provides sound counsel on what questions to ask and what points really matter in negotiating with all the parties involved in weaving a Web presence.

Clicking Through is about opportunity as well as risk. But its warnings and suggestions concerning the things that can go wrong in e-business are sobering words of wisdom for companies about to fly enthusiastically into the enticing Web. This book will empower businesses to manage their online risks intelligently so that they can pursue online opportunities without fear of the unknown.

In The E-Commerce Book: Building the E-Empire (Academic Press, $39.95, 0124211607), authors Steffano Korper and Juanita Ellis convey a deep understanding of Internet applications in business. That's hardly a surprise, since these information technology experts and educators have been working at the cutting edge of online business since the very Stone Age of the World Wide Web way back in 1994.

Would-be e-emperors will find this guide to empire-building as comprehensive as they could possibly hope for and will find plenty of inspiration as well. Lest anyone doubt the vigor of the Web marketplace, the authors sketch out its potential in terms that will convert all doubters. Maybe the figure of $2.2 trillion in worldwide e-commerce activity by 2003 is just too large to digest, so let's look at some smaller numbers from the book. Number of years it took for use of the automobile to spread to one quarter of the population: 55. For the telephone: 35 years. For the Internet: 7 years. Message delivered: This new medium is catching on at lightning speed, and if your company doesn't reach its customers through the Web, your competitors will.

Korper and Ellis approach e-commerce from a technologist's point of view though, as the books mentioned above make clear, online business makes techies of everyone in the office, stripping the old high priests from the MIS department of much of their mystical power, but also leaving behind anyone who fails to master the basics of Internet technologies. It's fortunate that these writers have a gift for gently acquainting the intimidated novice with the rapidly evolving tech phenomena that may well shape his or her future, from XML language to EDI connectivity to asymmetric key encryption.

Despite its attention to high-tech topics, The E-Commerce Book is a big-picture view of the Web's brave new world. For any business leader trying to get e-commerce right the first time, this title will be an indispensable resource.

Our fourth book doesn't present itself as another work about the Internet, but the very fact that Web applications are so central to its strategic vision makes it an important volume for business people coming to grips with the new online economy. Steven Wheeler and Evan Hirsch, authors of Channel Champions: How Leading Companies Build New Strategies to Serve Customers (Jossey-Bass, $35, 0787950343), are consultants with Booz-Allen and Hamilton, who cast a laser focus on one of the ultimate goals of all business efforts, online and otherwise: building a connection with the people who buy a company's products and services.

Channel Champions is the book to pick up in the quiet moments of the morning before you boot up and begin your hectic online business day. Its core premise is refreshingly simple: Good businesses build good channels and tend them with loving care. A channel is simply a means of reaching the customer. Channels, Wheeler and Hirsch argue, have always been with us; a 5-and-10 store is (or was) one form of channel, a big-box superstore is another, and a virtual store that exists only online is another.

Obviously, channels are changing these days. Unintended consequences can result. Channels that worked for the decade preceding last Thursday may not work come Tuesday. The Web channel can fail to reach key customers, and it can eat into traditional sales channels. The authors guide the reader through these shoals by showing how the world's best companies have channeled successfully how Wilsonart built a distributor network that delivers on its promise to deliver kitchen counters within ten days to anywhere in the U.S., how Saturn sells a transportation service to beat out rivals who just sell cars, how Dell dominates personal computer sales by selling directly to customers.

Briefly noted: Michael Lewis, of Liar's Poker fame, has written the most engaging and dramatic business book of the year: The New New Thing: A Silicon Valley Story (W.W. Norton, $25.95, 0393048136; Nova Audio Books, $17.95, 1567408567). Lewis plays Boswell to one of the wild sages of our era, Netscape founder Jim Clark, intrepidly riding along as the entrepreneur tries to launch a health care technology company and the world's most computerized yacht simultaneously.

U.C.L.A. Professor Richard Rosecrance surveys the increasingly integrated global economy in The Rise of the Virtual State: Wealth and Power in the Coming Century (Basic Books, $26, 0465071414). Rosecrance draws analogies from the experiences of great and lesser national powers, going back hundreds of years to buttress his argument that we are literally on the verge of entering a new world: a universe where traditional measures of national might have no meaning and where a country's most valuable resources are often the least tangible ones.

The Biology of Business: Decoding the Natural Laws of Enterprise (Jossey-Bass, $28.50, 078794324X) presents a radical new management theory, set out in essays by editor John H. Clippinger and nine other contributors. Borrowing principles from scientific thinking, the authors postulate a thought-provoking new approach to running organizations as complex adaptive systems. Journalist E. Thomas Wood is an editor with the Champs-Elysees.com family of European language-and-culture products.

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