Have you ever looked forward to something only to find the anticipation was better than the experience? That's how business-to-business e-commerce feels, with reality struggling to match the hype.
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I don't mean to trivialise the efforts being made by users and suppliers of IT to make e-commerce live up to its billing. It's just that, despite the advantages of e-commerce, the cultural and technological barriers are significant and pose real challenges. Businesses looking to maximise the benefits of B2B have to change not just how their systems operate but also how the business is structured to ensure they remain competitive.
An example is the constant tug-of-war within companies to determine who should be in charge of the e-commerce strategy. Despite undeniable and tantalisingly close benefits, sorting out these issues is slowing down IT spending and will mean the more optimistic projections about uptake of e-commerce are overblown. Some, if not most, of the failure of IT spending to pick up after Y2K can be attributed to companies struggling with their e-commerce strategy rather than getting on with implementation.
But there is hope on the horizon, with the arrival and growing importance of the Extensible Markup Language (XML) to deliver technical benefits and minimise some of the cultural issues.
XML is to data what HTML was to presention. It allows data to be stored, searched and sent around networks efficiently. It is platform-independent, making it ideal for passing on and manipulating. On the Web, it will speed up processing, response times and allow more flexibility in the display of Web pages. Downloading a Java applet with XML data to a mobile phone will increase the flexibility and usefulness of these devices.
In B2B e-commerce, XML will streamline processes allowing information to be shared between front and back-office systems. Meanwhile, the adoption of vertical-sector XML standards will improve communication throughout the supply chain and should lay electronic data interchange to rest. It is likely that the adoption of XML will be as significant a step for e-commerce as Windows and Microsoft standardisation was for the desktop.
However, the amount of work that has to be done to achieve this is considerable. Much of it is unglamorous programming work within IT user organisations.
On the other hand, all of this means there will be plenty of winners among companies helping to deliver the benefits.
XML is now the 12th most in-demand IT skill, according to the ComputerWeekly/SSP salary survey. It looks likely that XML programmers will continue to attract high salary rates. This is in contrast to HTML, where pay rates fell when it became clear the work was straightforward.
XML programmers require a deeper level of expertise. Now all businesses need to consider the implications of XML. It will call for some strategic thinking to determine how to make the most of the opportunity. But the rewards will be worth it.
Who knows, maybe in a few years, the applications technologists have been promising will begin to meet expectations.
Ian Mitchell is an IT analyst with stockbroker Beeson Gregory. His opinions should not be construed as investment advice.