Microsoft unveils e-commerce game plan

One million new businesses to delve into the world of e-commerce within a year – that is the lofty goal at the heart of Microsoft Corp.’s electronic-commerce strategy.

“You don’t have to be a big corporation with a well-known brand or a company with lots of available dollars to throw at e-commerce solutions,” said Bill Gates, chairman and CEO of Microsoft, at the company’s recent Commerce Solutions briefing in San Francisco.

Microsoft is going after its goal in several ways. It has expanded its commerce platform with three new software products and new service offerings. The company will release Microsoft Commerce Server as an update to its Site Server Commerce Edition Version 3.0 to make it easier for medium-sized and large businesses to build “sophisticated” Web sites.

The platform also will include a new Microsoft BizTalk Server with tools and services that help businesses share data more readily.

The third enhancement will be Small Business Commerce Services, helping small businesses to quickly create Web sites, promote their companies and sell goods on-line.

Key to the Microsoft strategy is BizTalk, a framework based on the Extensible Markup Language (XML) that enables the exchange of business data among applications, regardless of operating system, platform or technology.

All three enhancements include support for BizTalk, which was designed to allow tighter integration of promotional services on the Microsoft Network (MSN), so that companies have better access to customers.

“BizTalk is a way for applications to talk with one another, to share information, for applications to interact more easily than they have in the past,” said Bob Herbold, executive vice-president and COO of Microsoft. “Ideally, it’s a Lego-blocks idea for electronic commerce.”

According to Gates, XML represents a “new frontier in the world of computing,” and BizTalk will be the glue that ties it all together.

“Over the next few years, you’re going to see Microsoft and others taking XML and defining schemas for particular problems. Here with BizTalk, we’ve applied XML schemas to electronic commerce,” he said.

“Now, when we talk about interoperability, it won’t just move the bits between different systems. We can map the semantic information at the schema level so that the transactions really work in the fullest sense.”

With BizTalk as the glue, Microsoft intends to put XML support in all of its Office, BackOffice and Windows software programs.

The company also unveiled Microsoft Passport, which aims to facilitate faster, more secure consumer transactions by storing users’ personal information on-line.

“We’ll make it so [customers] don’t have to ever enter that information multiple times. So the whole notion of one-click shopping will extend to every site on the Internet,” Gates said.

Microsoft is forming a new MSN Open Marketplace Strategy, which will include advertising, promotion, distribution and searching capabilities. The company has acquired on-line comparison-shopping service CompareNet to augment the MSN searching capabilities.

The BizTalk system will be introduced next year, and beta versions of BizTalk Server, Commerce Server and Small Business Commerce Service will be available this summer.

Jim Westcott, senior analyst, IDC (Canada) Ltd., was generally positive about the announcements made, but expressed some concern about when the products are scheduled to ship.

“It has to be a concern, especially when you see that the products they are coming out with are constantly missing deadlines. But at this point, I think what they are really trying to focus on is making sure that there is an awareness out there in the market – that they are involved in this market space and they have a lot of tools and the ability to provide a lot of what small business and customers will be looking for,” he said.

Microsoft also announced that various other businesses have endorsed the e-commerce and BizTalk strategies. MasterCard International Inc. and Clarus Corp. said they will cooperatively market Internet-based corporate purchasing products based on the platform. PeopleSoft Inc. will base its Business Network on the new Microsoft Commerce platform and SAP AG said it will support BizTalk.