Confusion in the marketplace

Marketplaces - the next big thing, but no-one's sure how they'll work, writes David Bicknell

Marketplaces - the next big thing, but no-one's sure how they'll work, writes David Bicknell

Six months ago, the picture for business-to-business marketplaces was clear.

A whole string had been set up, for example Chemdex (now Ventro) in the chemical sector; Band-X in the IP telephony arena; and Altra Energy in the energy sector.

The whole marketplace concept then seemed to be legitimised by a decision by the Big Three carmakers - GM, Ford, and Daimler-Chrysler - to merge their separate supply chains.

Suddenly, a whole string of marketplaces in other sectors were set up - not by the dotcoms this time, but by bricks-and-mortar companies. On consecutive days, an Internet trading exchange involving Boeing, Raytheon and Lockheed-Martin was set up for the aerospace and defence industry, swiftly followed by a healthcare exchange to facilitate the buying and selling of medical equipment involving Johnson and Johnson, Abbott Labs, Medtronic and Baxter International.

No dotcoms these. These were all traditional firms seeing an opportunity to create exchanges in their own industries. If you were an established multi-national company and you weren't involved in a marketplace, you were behind the curve. Round up some companies in the sector - no, it doesn't matter if they are your competitors, you'll worry about that later! - and boost that share price and market capitalisation. Do you have an e-business strategy? Sure, you do, you're part of one of those "electronic marketplaces".

Now, less than four months on, the world has changed again. At the end of May, while those pioneering dotcom exchanges contemplated the imminent entry of the "slow" legacy firms into their arena, the US Justice Department and the US Senate Commerce Committee stepped in to confuse the situation further.

First of all, the Department of Justice said it would hold a meeting in June to examine the marketplace for small suppliers to the proposed GM, Ford and Daimler-Chrysler set up. Then, both indicated they would also examine an online venture by the US's largest airlines. The venture, involving Delta Airlines, Continental, NorthWest, United and American, has been dubbed T2 by the travel industry. The industry fears that T2 will offer special rates for tickets through its Web site, freezing out third party distributors, even online travel agencies such as Travelocity and Expedia. That could hinder competition in the marketplace, hence the antitrust concerns. Instead of having a marketplace in which smaller suppliers can participate and drive competition, what might actually be created by the large bricks-and-mortar companies is essentially a cartel set up for their own benefit.

This would lead to UK suppliers, being forced - on unfavourable terms - to join a consortium-led marketplace. The car industry, where the Big Three hold huge buying power, is a prime example.

The new exchange builders claim that this is not the case for many industries. In the majority of industries, there is greater fragmentation in purchasing power. In some industries the largest players may control only 25% of the purchasing power.

In any case, say the new market makers, many of the marketplaces being set up by bricks-and-mortar companies so far have little substance behind them, other than an announcement for the benefit of investors. For Altra Energy, there are nine traditional companies challenging its space, but so far precious little real movement.

Eventually, both traditional companies and dotcoms are likely to have to pool their resources. That is more likely than a string of competitors working together. Already the marketplace entrepreneurs have a quiet chuckle at the idea of competing managers from six bricks-and-mortar companies "invading" their marketplace - because their boards had put them up to it - then having to grovel to the entrepreneurs to learn now to do it. "It takes them three months just to get a date to meet," said one recent delegate at the Net Market Makers conference in Boston.

Meanwhile, for IT and e-commerce strategy leaders trying to deliver a working system for their boards, the best news of last month was that for those pressed for time, more technology options to help create marketplaces will shortly exist.

Apart from the string of companies already in the e-marketplace and supply chain space - such as Oracle, Commerce One, Ariba, Biomni and i2 - you can now add IBM, which has claimed to be able to put a e-marketplace solution "in a box" that can be delivered within 90 days.

Similarly, SAP, whose solution was unlikely to be able to reproduce the runaway success of SAP R3 in the ERP world, is also ready to partner with Commerce One's. By the end of May, an integrated Oracle e-business solution was expected to be available too.

In the meantime fledgling marketplaces face some serious challenges. For the dotcoms, it is trying to grow a business that is unlikely to get more funding. For the traditional companies, it is delivering on the marketplaces they claim to want to create, and countering any antitrust concerns.

The next three months are going to be just as much of a rollercoaster as the last three.

Read more on E-commerce technology