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Man Vs. Machine: The Debate Continues As More Businesses Go Online

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RALEIGH — The technology age is reshaping the way everyone does business. ATMs are replacing bank tellers, and the Internet is replacing travel agents and stock brokers.

This week the nation's largest full service investment firm announced it will offer Internet trading. Some analysts sayMerrill Lynchwaited too long and has learned the hard way that consumers now want to have a choice between personal service and convenience.

Donald Weiser has taken human interaction to a new low. He conducts nearly all of his business by computer, from "airline tickets, auction sites, and I also buy and sell stock," he said. "It's wonderful. It's quick and it's easy. I don't have to deal with surly people, crowds, whatever."

People like Weiser have now even driven longtime holdouts like Merrill Lynch to offer Internet trading.

"It's another alternative right now, as far as an addition to our menu," says Peter DiCenso, resident vice president of Merrill Lynch.

Will online mean the end of the line for well-established occupations like financial consultants and travel agents?

Electronic commerce professor John McCann believes it will, but he adds that something called the creative destruction theory dictates that those jobs will be replaced by jobs in similar, yet advanced industries.

"Creative people are inventing new ways to do some aspect of business," McCann said. "As they invent new ways, the old ways are destroyed and that's been going on for centuries."

Merrill Lynch, meanwhile, believes there is room for both the new and old ways of conducting its business.

"The majority of our clients want and need [our help], they don't have the time to do this on their own," DiCenso said. "They want and need the expertise and wisdom of a financial consultant."

Still, online trading is exploding. Forrester Research estimates right now there are 3.7 million online brokerage accounts, which makes up more than a quarter of the total investing population.