Microsoft helps e-commerce in Canada play catch-up

Interview with Simon Witts

Microsoft Canada Co. is pledging to help create 25,000 new Canadian on-line businesses by next year.

Canada has been found lacking in its ability to compete in this forum so far. But it’s not too late to overcome this handicap, according to Simon Witts, Microsoft Canada’s general manager.

At Comdex in Toronto, ComputerWorld Canada senior writer Gail Balfour had the opportunity to speak to Witts about the company’s latest electronic commerce initiatives in Canada.

CWC : There’s been more of a trend lately towards end-to-end solutions for e-commerce. What are Microsoft’s goals in this?

Witts: We’ve had a vision up until quite recently of having PCs in every home and on every desk. But if you look at what the Internet’s done and the various device types available, that vision needed broadening. So we talk about our role much more now in terms of giving people the power to do what they want to do, where and when they want to do it, on any device connected to the Internet.

I say that because in the commerce scenario, looking at it end-to-end, in one respect you want reach and richness for people using the service, who want to do it through their pager or their phone, not just their PC. You want to create services that can be shared between commerce providers. A great example of that is bill presentment/bill payment. Banks are trying to create an environment there beyond secure gateways to allow any merchant to present and have a bill paid.

CWC : How common is on-line bill presentment and payment in Canada, compared to the States?

Witts: It’s a much better market in Canada. We’ve been developing software explicitly to allow banks to present bills and have them paid to their bank and customers while on-line. We worked closely with Bell Emergis in Canada with a consortium of the banks through their e-route joint venture. It’s like when the banks got together early in Canada on ABMs, like when they got together early in Canada on credit or debit transactions. They said they were going to get together early and find some common standards and techniques to present bills best at bank sites, rather than biller sites.

CWC : How does this translate into e-commerce benefits for Canada?

Witts: If you look at debit card transactions (here) they are 10 times per person what they are in the U.S. This consolidation of the banks, plus the banks’ ability to enable new markets quicker through collaborating, is good for Canadians and it’s definitely good for Canadian commerce. We are a year behind and we’re trying to catch up. We have a zone on MSN called the Shopping Zone. Today 60 of the 160 stores are Canadian. We’d like that to be ideally 160. Or maybe 500 of the 500.

We do know that Canadian (Internet) consumers spend an average of $350 a year on-line. And we do realize just over 90 per cent of it goes to merchants in the U.S. Bridging that gap is really important. I think our platform, our relationship with the banks and MSN services, will ultimately bring us an end-to-end commerce strategy so that more Canadian businesses feel more comfortable to go on-line and sell.

CWC : What was your reaction to the recent Andersen Consulting study which found most Canadian businesses do not consider e-commerce a top priority?

Witts: I disagree. I think that Canadian businesses do see e-commerce as a prime opportunity and a real need. But we can’t brush over the need for speed. Things are moving very, very fast. So I don’t think it’s a lack of acknowledgement; I think Canadian businesses are very smart. They understand precisely what the opportunity is to serve existing customers better on-line. It’s just a speed thing, and we’re not dangerously behind.

CWC : Some say that one reason our businesses are slow adopters is because they view e-commerce as a separate initiative, rather than as a logical business evolution. Is that fair to say?

Witts: I would very much agree with that. Everyone’s learning …I think the companies that will do best on-line will think long-term: ‘Our employees are a subset of our users. How are we going to develop systems and services that will put our customers, our partners and our suppliers on-line?’

When you start to bring your customers into the equation – if you are working digitally already – it’s a lot easier. The CIO is creating that digital economy internally, before you drive demand or customers to a digital technique or channel that you are not used to using yourself. People’s ability to move ahead in e-commerce directly relates back to how well they’ve built their digital nervous system for their employees.

CWC : You’ve had a few months to gather reaction from Microsoft’s e-commerce strategies announced in March. There were some critics who said the strategy was announced late in the game, and was largely based on technology that didn’t yet exist. What is the feedback like now?

Witts: Obviously we are dependent on the evolution of Site Server to the new commerce server this year. But I don’t hear any customers complaining, at all, about the existing quality of Site Server 3.0. So we don’t feel we are late in terms of software platform at all. In terms of the services that go around that, we feel very privileged in Canada to have, essentially, the number one portal in the country with Through that, for our customers we do commerce with, we are bringing very meaningful commerce services.

We talked in March about Link Exchange, and we already have over 12,000 Canadian businesses on-line. So we will drive many tens of thousands of Canadian small businesses on-line through [this service] in the year ahead.

CWC : How is Microsoft’s new XML-based e-commerce language, Biz Talk, being implemented?

Witts: It has moved fairly fast – it’s really taking our value chain initiative forward. We have already worked with the ERP vendors and a lot of the retailers to actually describe, at a higher meta level, how business can be conducted on a value chain. What we found is that describing those business transactions has been fairly straightforward. We’ve seen the definition of Biz Talk move very fast, we are very close to having Biz Talk Servers and services.

Biz Talk is all about speed. And I think if there’s one thing Microsoft in Canada can do, it’s bridge that one-year (e-commerce) gap. Biz Talk is very, very significant in that regard.