Online buying piece of cake with Digby


A startup has released free software coupled to a Web service that lets handheld users quickly and easily execute online transactions with a group of vendors.

The e-commerce service, called Digby, is available from 30 Second Software initially for Research in Motion Blackberry handhelds.

As the company name is intended to imply, the goal is to let users finalize an online transaction in 30 seconds or less. Apart from requiring a Java runtime, the software is agnostic with regard to operating system or device, and some companies have already been talking with 30 Second about using Digby for business-to-business transactions.

Privately held 30 Second Software was founded early last year by CEO Dave Sikora.

Users download a free Java Micro Edition (JME) client, about 250KB in size, along with a compressed catalog, about the same size, that features a range of products from Digby merchants. There are eight of these vendors to start with including, Godiva and FTD. The Digby catalog is continually updated with price changes and new products.

Users can work offline with the BlackBerry user interface, buttons and dials to select items, create a shopping cart, and then execute, via a cellular data call, what seems to be a single order.

This part of the process has been carefully designed for mobile users, says 30 Second CTO Lance Obermeyer. “When you order from Amazon [from your desktop PC], you have to click ‘submit’ three or four times,” he says. Users click when they sign in, when they enter or confirm credit card information, select shipping options, and confirm the final order, each click a round trip of about five seconds.

“But our goal was to finalize a [complete] sale in 30 seconds,” Obermeyer says. “So we put all the order information into one message that’s sent from the client to our server.”

In other words, to enable the cutting edge of mobile computing today, 30 Second relies on a form of one of the oldest types of data processing: batch processing.

Because the client is a native BlackBerry application, it can pull from the BlackBerry contacts list and other data stores addresses, phone numbers, credit card data and other information, and populate the Digby order form: the users enter almost no data. If the user wants additional information on a catalog item, a click triggers a connection to the Digby server or to the merchan’s Web site for that specific information, such as a product photo.

In the case of a huge inventory, such as Amazon vast list of books, Digby typically will offer only a small subset of products, for example, the current New York Times listing of fiction and non-fiction bestsellers. But a Digby user can also launch an Amazon search for any book or author, and buy it through the Digby client.

It’s on the back end of Digby, at a hosted data centre, where the complicated work takes place. The call to place the user’s order carries an XML file to the Digby server software at a hosted data center. The software is based on Java and open source elements: Java Enterprise Edition, with the JBoss application server running on hosted Red Hat Linux servers, with MySQL as the database. The server code picks apart the XML order file and then connects directly to the existing e-commerce sites of the Digby partners. If the file contains orders to different Digby merchants, the server starts different process threads to contact each of these sites. Digby makes heavy use of Web services protocols, and it can make a Web service call to any merchant site that has itself “Web-enabled” its e-commerce process. But that’s not yet happened with many vendors. In those cases, the Digby server has a program called a state machine that connects to the vendor Web site. Using data pulled from the original XML order document, this program automatically goes through the merchant’s existing online order process. “We programmatically click through the same process that a human would,” Obermeyer says. “There is no change to the vendor’s existing e-commerce system.” While all this is going, Digby keeps the user apprised of the process, initially sending an “order accepted” message to show that the order is in process. But because of Digby’s design, the users don’t have to wait until it completes: they can check their BlackBerry e-mail or make a phone call. Eventually, when the orders are finalized by each merchant Web site, Digby relays a message back the handheld. And 30 Second software says this final message takes places within 30 seconds.

The company had to work closely with the partners so Digby would know how to handle a wide range of errors, exceptions or other problems, such as a rejected credit card number or back-ordered item. “We have relationships with all these partners, so we have access to all their Website dynamics,” Obermeyer says. 30 Second has revenue sharing arrangements with the partners: it gets a small slice of each sale made through the Digby service.

30 Secondmakes heavy use of Amazon’s commercial Web services, a battery of APIs, the Simple Storage Service (dubbed S3) online hosted storage service, and other parts of Amazon’s e-commerce infrastructure. Vendors like 30 Second Software in effect rent these infrastructure components, saving money while making use of proven technology and services.

BlackBerry users can download the Digby free client. Digby doesn’t ask for or store user credit card numbers. A password log-in blocks access to the Digby client if the BlackBerry is stolen or lost. All traffic is encrypted with HTTP/S.

What the heck is a ‘digby’?

Like a lot of startups, 30 Second Software execs kicked around a lot of product name ideas, and then tested them with focus groups, not to mention friends and family.

“There’s no real magic behind it,” says Lance Obermeyer, CTO for 30 Second. “Believe it or not, we just really liked the name digby. It’s short, memorable, and just rolls of the tongue.”

Company officials say they hope the name becomes an online verb as in “I’ll digby that book.”