The e-business alphabet: let's spell it out for you

Getting from A to B in the e-commerce world can be difficult. And getting from B2B2C and back again can be even trickier. Danny...

Getting from A to B in the e-commerce world can be difficult. And getting from B2B2C and back again can be even trickier. Danny Bradbury unravels the alphabetti spaghetti of e-business

The computer industry has always been renowned for its jargon, but the e-commerce revolution has generated a whole new language that executives would do well to understand. This A-Z guide presents some key terms that you'll need when speaking to people in the know.


The euphemistic term used by dotcom start-ups for the market crash in spring 2000. Also known as a market correction, it occurs whenever enough investors realise they have valued their high-tech portfolios way above their potential to pay for themselves. E-commerce companies without viable business plans or with a high burn rate are most likely to suffer from a market adjustment.

Burn rate

This is the amount of money a company consumes in excess of its income on a monthly basis. Living beyond your means is one of the defining characteristics of many e-commerce start-ups. Indeed, in many cases, the industry actually encourages it, albeit implicitly.

To make a name for yourself as an e-commerce start-up, you have to become well known, creating a brand name that permeates the Web. This is how Amazon made its mark, for example. Doing this often involves buying other companies, at vastly inflated prices. Spending more than you earn is fine for a while, but like gambling, you need to know when to stop.

Customer Relationship Management (CRM)

One of the most hyped terms in the e-commerce sector -- and there are many -- CRM is all about "owning" your customer. Rather than mere personalisation technology, or computer telephony integration, CRM can involve both of these technologies and many more.

It is a philosophy with many different facets. Indeed, many suppliers and systems integrators will tell you this, secretly rubbing their hands together at the prospect of huge consultancy fees. Nevertheless, done well, it can lead to an increase in repeat business, and a healthy level of cross sales.

Ideally, a CRM strategy should contain a well-constructed data model, giving you the ability to analyse your customers and second-guess their needs.

Digital Rights Management (DRM)

DRM is an increasingly popular subject following the debacle around the online music exchange mechanism Napster, which was sued this year by the Recording Industry Association of America. It is a way of protecting your online content from unauthorised copying.

DRM products and standards are now available for different types of content, including music, video and electronic books. The Secure Digital Music Initiative (SDMI) is one of the better-known standards in this area.

Exit route

This is one of the first phrases in the business plans of many dotcom start-ups.

It describes the ultimate culmination of any "get rich quick" strategy and, until the adjustment earlier this year, often culminated in an initial public offering making the start-up's founders paper millionaires. More recently, it has involved a trade sale, although many companies adopting this approach will explain, in surprised tones, that they had no idea it was going to happen.

Five nines

This refers to the number of nines before and after the decimal point when talking about system uptime. The number indicates a percentage of total time when a system is up and running.

Not surprisingly, 99.999% uptime is the Holy Grail for suppliers, who are constantly reinforcing the need for reliability in e-commerce systems.

Hewlett-Packard has teamed up with Cisco, Oracle and BEA to form the "five nines: five minutes" programme, which is committed to making this figure viable by the end of this year. The five minutes represents the unscheduled downtime each year that 99.999% uptime would leave.


This virtual creature is the most common factor stopping companies from reaching the five nines goal.

Gremlinscan comefromanywhere-badly writtencode, inadequatelydesignedsoftware architectures,incompatible browsers or even just server-based device drivers that cause problems in the system.

They have been around since the start of computing, but they are more noticeable within e-commerce systems, because they can create problems for hundreds of thousands of customers at once, just before they give you their credit card details.

They can therefore have a negative impact on your path to profitability. Good software testing is vital when trying to weed out gremlins, but unfortunately, this process is often left to the poor 20-year-old schmuck taking a year out to work in an IT department as part of a sandwich university course.

Hot potato

This is the game played by the business management within a bricks-and-mortar company whenever an e-commerce project goes wrong.

No one likes admitting to board-level management that they were responsible for the failure of a huge e-commerce project which represents a company's best chance for future growth.

Throwing the problem around like a hot potato is perceived to be a good way to avoid taking the blame. A better way to deal with it is to appoint someone who is responsible for the whole e-commerce initiative in the first place, rather than trying to create an e-commerce strategy by committee. Unfortunately, because e-commerce spans so many parts of the business, it is all too easy to end up with too many people at senior levels on the project.

Internet time

This is not the ridiculous marketing tool invented by Swatch as a new universal time system for Internet users. Rather, it is the time model used by stressed business managers and project leaders when justifying the ultra-short deadlines that they have to work to when developing e-commerce projects. For example: "Yes, I know you used to get six months to develop this sort of system Colin, but now we're working in Internet time."

While no one has applied exact temporal analysis to Internet time, it's roughly analogous to dog years, one of which equals seven human years. Luckily, your dog probably costs less to maintain than the average e-commerce project.


Originally intended as the foundation of the network computing initiative, Java has turned into one of the most dominant server-side component-based development technologies for e-commerce players.

In 1995, everyone thought Java would be prevalent on every desktop, replacing the Windows operating system altogether and heralding a new generation of intelligent thin clients. Five years later, it has more or less skipped the desktop and wound up in the middle tier, in the form of the Java 2 Enterprise Edition, and Enterprise Java Beans. It competes with Microsoft's Component Object Model, which is an alternative component-based architecture for e-commerce software developers.


Derived from Jack Kevorkian, the ill-famed "Dr Death" and supporter of euthanasia in the US, this rather morbid verb is used to describe the act of ending a project.

It should be used when terminating projects that were already on their last legs; ie, "We Kevorked the project when we realised that we had designed our server architecture independently of our legacy data structure, meaning that we couldn't access our customer data."

Kevorking a project usually leads to a frantic game of hot potato, and in some extreme cases to an "ulp".

Low-hanging fruit

Low-hanging fruit is the term used to describe project deliverables that are within easy reach. As such, it can be applied to all types of IT project, whether e-commerce-related or not.

The smart project manager will look for low-hanging fruit that can be delivered as part of the initial project roll-out, leaving the juicier morsels until the second or third iterations. Trying to capture all of the deliverables within the first iteration will inevitably lead to a late and buggy Web application.

Putting a pretty fruit plate underneath the noses of your board-level management will inevitably earn you brownie points and ensure the on-going internal sponsorship of your project.


Short for mobile commerce, this is the subject of the latest supplier circle jerk, but for once it looks as though it may actually catch on.

The idea is to use location information gathered from next-generation mobile devices as a means to offer personalised services to their owners. So, on arrival in a town, a service provider could know where you were and offer you a cut-price hotel room, along with reservations at a local restaurant, for example. It could be the one thing that saves wireless application protocol from being just another geek toy.

Not Com

If there's one thing that the adjustment did, it was to inspire disillusionment among the venture capitalist community, which had only just started to sit up and take notice of high-tech companies in the UK in the past three or four years.

Consequently, many companies wanted to disassociate themselves from the hitherto sexy dotcom moniker, and instead began marketing themselves as businesses that just happened to base themselves on the Internet. To be truly effective, however, these semantics have to be accompanied by a decent business plan and an impressive P2P.

Online exchange

The online exchange business has received much press coverage in the past 18 months, as companies like Ariba and Commerce One worked with vertical market players to develop market-specific trading hubs online.

A trading hub is a place where companies in a specific sector, say oil and gas, can buy and sell products and services relating to that vertical sector, freeing themselves up from the paperwork and inefficiencies associated with manual trading. It also gives rise to interesting new business models, including online B2B auctions. One major concern, however, has been the ownership of these exchanges, which are often controlled by large, established players within a particular space.


Following the adjustment, many e-commerce start-ups have been forced to switch their emphasis from finding a viable exit route to creating a solid business plan with a convincing path to profitability. In order to impress wary venture capitalists, they have had to replace the term "time to market" with "time to profit". Doing so involves moderating your burn rate so that you can create conditions whereby your expenditure is significantly less than your revenue.

Quick fix

A quick fix is often used after a gremlin has been encountered within an e-commerce project, but it isn't a very good way of avoiding an unwelcome game of hot potato further down the line. Quick fixes are generally only possible when dealing with minor problems, and it is very difficult to apply them to a system that has been badly designed from the start. A good example of a quick fix would be the alteration of some Javascript within a Web page to stop it returning an error.

Render wanderer

A render wanderer is someone who gets bored waiting for a Web site to load, or for some snazzy graphics to display, and decides to walk around the office annoying colleagues instead.

Unfortunately, many people are too busy trying to get a job done to wander around the office, and will simply type in another URL or go to another Web link to find a faster site that does the same job. This has led to a collection of mind-numbing cliches by over-eager marketing people convinced that they are the first to discover them.

These include "the competition is just a click away" and the over-quoted statistic that the average Web surfer waits eight seconds before trying another Web site.

Sticky site

When building Web sites, companies should be eager to attract visitors back to them on a regular basis. Such Web sites are often called sticky sites, because people can't stay away from them. Content management is the key to creating sticky sites, and the basic rules are obvious, but difficult to execute without some investment. Firstly, update your content regularly. Secondly, make it particularly relevant to each user, ideally using personalisation technologies.

Trade sale

Commonly known as acquisition, a trade sale is an ideal exit route for e-commerce start-ups, especially now that initial public offerings are frowned on in the wake of the adjustment. As early entry into the market is one of the basic tenets of e-commerce, bricks-and-mortar companies trying to get into the e-commerce space are often eager to tempt technology start-ups into a trade sale, so that they can acquire the technologies and branding necessary to enter the e-commerce space without having to do it themselves.

Now that some dotcom start-ups have been devalued following market disillusionment, some trade sales can be had at knock-down prices.


This is the sound made by business managers within e-commerce start-ups who suddenly realise that their business plan was written on the back of a fag packet, and that the company is about to go down the tubes. To make it more realistic, say it while setting light to a bunch of envelopes. This most closely approximates the sound of someone burning their stock options.

VC (Venture capitalist)

A company that ploughs money into an e-commerce start-up in the hope that it will grow rapidly and deliver a huge return on investment. Often, venture capitalists will angle for a controlling stake within a company in return for the funding to achieve the necessary burn rate at an early stage.


The wireless application protocol is a mechanism for exchanging data across cellular links with small footprint mobile devices. It has been embraced by companies wanting to deliver products and services to customers on the move. Still a very immature technology, Wap was developed in 1997 by Unwired Planet (now, Nokia, Ericsson and Motorola. Devices using it are only able to display limited information because of screen size.

Hopefully, as third generation cellular networks begin to deliver high data rates, and manufacturers develop mobile devices with larger screens and more comprehensive input mechanisms, Wap will develop into a more viable technology. Wap is very popular with the m-commerce crowd.


The Extensible Markup Language has become immensely popular as a method of data integration in the past 18 months. It appears to solve one of the major problems besetting business to business e-commerce providers: data compatibility.

Most businesses store their data in different formats, which can be a problem when they want to exchange it with other businesses. XML is a language controlled by the World-Wide Web Consortium (W3C) that can be used to write other languages describing specific types of data.

Two particularly important aspects of XML are Document Type Definitions (DTDs), a means of describing a language written in XML, and a schema, which incorporates business process information along with information about different data types within an XML-based language. Many different XML-based languages have emerged, including the Wireless Markup Language [WML], which is an intrinsic part of Wap. Unfortunately, because there are so many, it is difficult for businesses to know which ones to support. This is the most overwhelming problem facing the XML community today.


Short for Young Arrogant Programmer, this acronym is appropriate because it describes the sound that they make during everyday conversation. These employees, created by the need to develop applications in Internet time at any cost, yap about everything, including their ability to program Java, Wap and XML, and the fact that they are already earning more than their bosses are, even though they are only 23 years old. Yapers can be obnoxious and annoying, but they also vital when you need a quick fix.


The sound often heard coming from non-technical board members when the IT director tries to explain the importance of e-commerce. The sound can also be heard when salespeople start using particular phrases during their frequent visits. These include Internet time, five nines, and once again, the interminable "the competition is just a click away".

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