If the Internet needs a Johnny Appleseed, Jay M. Tenenbaum could play the part.
Mr. Tenenbaum, who goes by "Marty," is at once one of the medium's longest-standing users, cheerleaders, and promulgators. Two years ago, trying to bring to life his prophecy that the Internet will change the way people do business, he founded the not-for-profit CommerceNet consortium and set out to demonstrate its potential.
Last month, after leaving his post as a vice president at Verifone Inc., he returned to become CommerceNet's first full-time chairman.
"This stuff is here, it's real," said Mr. Tenenbaum, ever the proselytizer.
He said $3 million in goods and services were purchased through the Internet last year, and "billions" more in transactions were initiated on the Internet and consummated off-line.
It is part of Mr. Tenenbaum's gospel that the more Internet commerce grows, the better it is for banks. He predicts that one of the banks' core functions will be brokering purchases on the World Wide Web - not just those between consumers and vendors, but business-to-business transactions as well.
Several major banks are among the 150 dues-paying members of CommerceNet.
The consortium plans to reach out to more and smaller banks through an imminent partnership with the National Automated Clearing House Association.
"I personally introduced every leading bank in the U.S. to the Internet," Mr. Tenenbaum said. "I introduced most of the major on-line services to it. I gave (America Online chairman) Steve Case his first tour of the Net."
Mr. Tenenbaum also said CommerceNet, based in Menlo Park, Calif., had served as an incubator for some of the leading companies in electronic commerce, among them Cybercash, Terisa Systems, and Netscape Communications.
"Mark Andreesen came up through CommerceNet and met Jim Clark," said Mr. Tenenbaum, referring to the two masterminds of Netscape. "That's just a seminal event in the changing of the world."
CommerceNet colleagues reinforce Mr. Tenenbaum's visionary status.
Mack Hicks, a vice president in interactive banking technology at BankAmerica Corp., described him as a "spark" that helped ignite his bank's extensive electronic banking effort.
"He was able to mobilize various people not only in Silicon Valley, but nationwide, to create the atmosphere for having commerce on the Internet," Mr. Hicks said.
Although the Internet has come into most Americans' consciousness only within the last couple of years, Mr. Tenenbaum was using the network 25 years ago, while doing graduate work in computer science at Stanford University. Stanford was one of the original sites of Arpanet, a Defense Department project that evolved into the Internet.
"There were 20 million E-mail users back then," said Mr. Tenenbaum, 52. "They were doing a lot of their work on-line and shipping it around, but they weren't buying or selling anything.
"The insight that struck me was that 20 million people looked like a natural market to me."
He did not act immediately on this hunch, but kept it in the back of his mind while pursuing a career in artificial intelligence at SRI International and Schlumberger Industries.
By 1988, he was "struck by an epiphany that the Internet had much more potential as a marketplace."
He returned to Stanford as a professor, organized a research program around Arpanet, and ultimately got seed money to form a research and development company, Enterprise Integration Technologies, or EIT.
Back then, he recalled, "there was no one else. It was just pure missionary work."
Verifone, the point-of-sale systems company seeking new opportunities in on-line commerce, acquired EIT last year for $28 million. Verifone had also helped Mr. Tenenbaum form CommerceNet, which began as a 15-company coalition exploring the potential of electronic commerce.
Today, CommerceNet includes the country's leading technology companies, which pay $1,500 to $35,000 a year to participate. The goal is to establish universally accepted ways of conducting business and making payments on the Internet, so that anyone can participate without chaos, confusion, or fear of security breaches.
To foster an electronic marketplace, CommerceNet is helping hone and promote standards and protocols that Internet participants could readily adopt.
In April, CommerceNet and another multi-industry body, the World Wide Web Consortium at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, formed the Joint Electronic Payments Initiative, with the goal of a universal payment platform for the Internet. Participants plan to conduct a live test of their payment standard this fall.
CommerceNet is also branching out. It has opened chapters in Japan and Canada, led by large banks, telephone companies, and media companies. Plans call for about six new chapters a year, Mr. Tenenbaum said.
The pace of progress has exceeded many expectations.
"Marty has been instrumental in envisioning the power of the Internet as a delivery vehicle for commerce," said Roger B. Bertman, vice president and general manager of Verifone's Internet commerce division, who engineered the EIT acquisition and worked closely with Mr. Tenenbaum until his full- time return to CommerceNet.
"I think the one piece of vision he underestimated was the speed with which what he saw would happen did, in fact, happen," Mr. Bertman said.
"Basically, commerce on the Internet is now a household term, so Marty's vision was affirmed," said Mr. Hicks.
Mr. Tenenbaum himself spends "an awful lot of time" on the Internet, shopping for goods and planning vacations.
"I buy cars, I buy movie tickets, and I arrange most of my travel on the Net," he said.
He predicts the medium will become so easy to use that it will attract a broader base of consumers, who will come to use it as a financial channel.
"Home banking will certainly take off," Mr. Tenenbaum said. "It's an ideal application for the Net."
He said he envisions a day when people will carry smart cards - not necessarily stored-value cards, but chip cards that contain digital identification certificates - for authentication of point-of-sale payments and on-line banking transactions. The system he describes may sound well beyond the current reach of bank technology, but he expects the infrastructure to evolve quickly.
"The point is that there are real opportunities in being able to tie together cyberspace with the physical world, and the physical world is where the banks rule," Mr. Tenenbaum said.
Though he resigned in June, Mr. Tenenbaum is a consultant for Verifone. He said the type of acceleration in electronic commerce he was seeking could best be promoted from his not-for-profit perch.
Thomas K. Wills, senior program manager at CommerceNet, said Mr. Tenenbaum's full-time attention "will be a major asset in getting new people involved in CommerceNet and moving it into its next generation."
"He is very good about getting people fired up about innovation and technology," Mr. Wills said. "The fact that he's extremely well-connected - not only in the technology community but in the government as well - means that he is able to make the right contacts for CommerceNet."
Now that commerce does exist on the Internet and promises to grow, what will the "next generation" hold for CommerceNet?
To some of the organization's directors, new goals should include bringing more industries - such as manufacturing or fashion - into the fold. It also means organizing Internet commerce along geographic and industry-specific lines.
To Mr. Tenenbaum, the acceptance of Internet transactions as a routine part of business would be the realization of a career-long dream.
"In the beginning, this was pie in the sky," Mr. Tenenbaum said. "Some day, years from now, I'll pinch myself and say, 'Did this really happen?'"