Computer-to-computer e-commerce is on its way

Sure, the browser has been the very embodiment of the Web – a standardized way to let people view information formatted in HTML. But over the past 18 months, companies have started creating ways to let Web applications interact automatically, either reducing or eliminating the need for a human working with a browser.

The goal is to let one company’s business processes, such as purchasing, interact directly with those of another, such as ordering. In other words, the “browserless Web” is on its way.

“At the moment, the Web is designed for human consumption,” says Simon Phipps, chief software evangelist for Sun Microsystems Inc. “But the direction is toward being able to allow business processes to connect across the Web.”

Automating interactions is needed because of the soaring volume of Web transactions, according to Melody Huang, chief architect with Keane, an IT services company in Boston. In large-scale, business-to-business interactions, “time is of the essence,” she says. “You can’t afford to have a clerk re-enter the data through a Web browser.”

“I’ve seen figures that say 60 per cent of the time, the guy on the phone taking your order gets it wrong,” says Dan Connolly, XML activity lead with the World Wide Web Consortium, where he’s working on the semantic Web – standards for facilitating computer-to-computer interactions. “Computers never get the order wrong,” he says.

Exchanging information via documents formatted in XML is a fundamental part of the browserless Web. The potential impact can be seen in early form in e-commerce coalitions such as RosettaNet, which unites sellers and buyers of electronic components. A new report from Zona Research Inc., “The Dash for Interoperability,” cites several RosettaNet examples. Arrow Electronics, for instance, says it reduced turnaround time to customers from “next day” to “same day.” Lucent claims that disseminating technical information via XML has cut component selection time in half.

“We’ve had browsers on the brain,” says Marc Andreessen, who as co-founder of Netscape Communications Corp. helped create that fixation.

“There’s no reason why most of the Internet traffic within five years can’t be computers talking to computers,” says Andreessen, now chairman of Loudcloud, an Internet service company.

Sun’s Phipps says such interactions will eventually take place via a “company API” – a programming interface that can be queried over the Internet by programs at other Web sites. The interface lays bare applications, data and components with which these remote programs can interact.

Phipps and Andreessen say many basic components are in place to start building and using such company APIs. XML is the basis for describing and sharing data, and application logic can be written as Java or ActiveX components. Regardless of the object model used by these components, they can be called over the Web via Simple Object Access Protocol (SOAP). An alternative mechanism, called ebXML, is being positioned for complex transactions. An emerging standard called Universal Description, Discover and Integration – akin to a Web directory service – will let applications identify other Web-based services they need and then connect with them.

An early example of a company interface is the eBay API, unveiled last November by the popular online auction service. Using the API tool kit, libraries and sample code, third-party developers can build applications that make use of eBay auction services, live data and other eBay services. These applications can be used by someone with a Web browser or by another application. In either case, the eBay services are embedded in the third-party application.

New to the Web, automatic business-to-business interchange has been a reality for years in many big corporations through electronic data interchange standards. But users and analysts agree that EDI is hugely expensive to deploy and maintain.

“You can’t change an EDI rule or process without changing the application and everything the application touches,” says Zona analyst Martin Marshall. “With XML [and other Web standards], you can make a business rule change without rewriting the application.”

Andreessen sounds almost cavalier in his view of companies’ capacity to move forward quickly with the browserless Web. “Put up a gateway server, let it take simple XML-based forms and go for it,” he says. “The nice thing about the consumer Web [based on the Web browser] is that it solved a lot of the problems we experienced at first with scaling and security. It’s completely simple now to see how to do this [more advanced browserless Web].”

But a gateway that accepts simple XML-based forms is a far cry from anything like a “company API,” says Ron Shelby, former CIO of General Motors Corp.’s e-GM e-commerce arm and now CEO of XMLSolutions.

“Most large companies don’t have a handle on their own semantic definitions of data in their applications,” he says. “Until they do, they’ll find it hard to have, for example, an automated on-line catalog with other companies.”

Shelby says the first step is for companies to clean up their internal data, create consistent terms and eliminate redundancies in data and applications. Next, start to forge a common XML, or in the future an ebXML, vocabulary for information exchange with key trading partners, focusing first on the most critical data.

Industry participants agree that it’s still a big job to sort out a consistent data framework within companies. But the key Web technologies are simple enough to begin the work of creating the browserless Web.

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Enterprise JavaBean to dominate software component



Enterprise JavaBean (EJB) will become a de facto standard for server-side, component-based implementations with virtually every application server software platform vendor standardizing on the EJB component model for deploying applications, according to International Data Corporation (IDC).

“EJB components form the basis for the most effective way of dealing with the heterogeneous, integration-intensive e-business tasks required in building comprehensive e-business solutions,” said Steve Garone, vice president of IDC’s Application Development and Deployment program. “Because users seek e-business solutions that are integrated and comprehensive, the relevance of EJB components to the e-business platform cannot be overstated.”

According to IDC, the use of server-side Java components will rise sharply, with sales increasing at a 1999-2004 compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 124%. By comparison, Microsoft-centric and non-EJB components will increase at CAGRs of 24% and 33%, respectively.

The research firm foresees the sale of Java-based components as surpassing those aligned with Microsoft platforms between 2002 and 2003. It says by 2004, the sale of server-side Java components will exceed that of non-EJB components.

IDC also reports that software components are playing a major role in the growing e-business marketplace. It predicts that worldwide revenue in this market will increase to $2.7 billion in 2004.

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Software firms team up to secure on-line purchases



ClearCommerce, a provider of transaction management software for e-commerce infrastructure, has incorporated RSA BSAFE Crypto-C software into its ClearCommerce Engine. Users of the software of Austin, Texas-based ClearCommerce include Apple Computer, Cardservice International, Chase Merchant Services, and E-Stamp. More than 35,000 merchants, business-to-business (B2B) enterprises, and service providers rely on the ClearCommerce Engine to process their online payment and credit card transactions. ClearCommerce software features real-time credit card processing and Internet fraud protection, as well as online reports, back-end integration, storefront integration, shipping/tax calculation, and delivery of digital merchandise.

RSA Security encryption software is said to help ClearCommerce ensure that its merchants are able to communicate securely over the Internet using SSL, thus making their customers’ shopping experience safer.

The RSA BSAFE line of security software is embedded in many Internet applications, including Web browsers, wireless devices, commerce servers, e-mail systems and virtual private network (VPN) products. Built to provide implementations of standards such as SSL, SMIME, WTLS, IPSec and PKCS, RSA BSAFE products are said to save developers time and risk in their development schedules. RSA Security Inc. has a Toronto office.

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