One of the downsides of "re-inventing the rules of business" is that we get to make all the same mistakes again.
Choosing an e-business system is an IT issue. Given that many e-business project managers are from a non-IT background, they would do well to listen to the hard-won experience of the people who've made painful errors in buying desktop, networking and enterprise resource planning products.
As these people will doubtless tell you, it's not about who has the best tools on the market.
Few outside of the respective marketing departments of Cisco, Microsoft and Oracle would argue that today's dominant players in networking, desktop software and ERP got where they are today by the strength of their products. Their products were bought in great numbers because they had superior marketing budgets.
It's unsurprising that there is no one-size-fits-all suite of e-commerce tools, because the needs of the market are so varied. Business-to-business e-commerce, for example, is all about supply and procurement of goods to and from partners. This is a very different type of online transaction from those experienced with business-to-consumer systems. The first is less marketing-intensive, since customer relationships are taken as read, while the second involves a one-to-many customer relationship, where the customer is assumed to be constantly on the verge of departure, and as much marketing intelligence as possible must be gleaned in order to retain them.
There is a plethora of differences between the needs of different e-commerce systems, which is why they all demand their own tailored selection from the three broad areas of functionality that e-business tools can be categorised into. All e-business systems will, to a varying degree, need some form of products from these major categories; application servers, content management and commerce management.
But, to simplify the many elements of an e-business suite into these three levels is to dangerously underestimate the complicated tectonics of the software systems needed, warns Simon Pollard, vice president and service director of AMR Research.
Just as in the early days of networking and desktop applications, there are different companies that supply products that excel at each level of functionality. The name of the game for each supplier is to somehow offer a service that covers all eventualities. This can be done by partnerships or by acquisition of technology.
Application servers, the software platforms from which e-commerce systems can be run, are most likely to call for a strategic choice of supplier. Since these products evolved as it became obvious, around the mid nineties, that the Web would become an application delivery vehicle, the suppliers that dominate in this area are the ones who dominated client-server at that time. It is IBM, Oracle, BEA, Sun and Microsoft, that provide the best operational tools to run services like transaction management and load balancing. These after all, are the types of task that inwardly facing systems had to provide.
None of these suppliers, incidentally, has fully embraced the values of the Web, since application servers tend to be proprietary in nature. This makes the choice of supplier at this level a crucial decision. "It can be a disaster if you throw your lot in with what proves to be the wrong supplier," says head analyst for Web development at Ovum, Christine Axton.
The managers of sites in which the content does not change too much, which tend to be business-to-business sites where product lists do not vary dramatically, will find that the choice of application server is their most important strategic decision. At this level, aligning with a single supplier or forging a partnership with a single supplier can be useful, since the amount of content management and personalisation of content is minimal. Though transaction rates will be high, since businesses will be buying and selling to others in their supply chain, these will not be complex, one-to-many transaction systems.
In business-to-business e-commerce, a strategic choice of supplier can save a lot of integration work. The downside is that the list of infrastructure and tool suppliers is limited, but the lack of "bells and whistles" is compensated for by the sheer reliability of the system.
Your choice of supplier depends, of course, on which firms dominate the industry in which you are setting up your supply system. In the chemicals and utilities markets, for example, the enterprise software supplier SAP has by far the highest penetration among companies. When these inwardly facing systems are turned outward, it's most likely that the Web version of SAP's R/3 system, mySAP.com, will provide the backbone for an industry-wide supply chain system. It will certainly be the easiest system to integrate with other companies because most other companies in your supply chain will use it.
The other two levels of e-commerce software, content management and commercial management, are of far greater consequence to the more fluid and dynamic business-to-consumer sites. Here the range of tools is more eclectic and the range of suppliers more baffling. Some pattern is emerging however, with a small handful of companies managing to straddle all three areas of expertise.
Three companies - Broadvision,Vignette and Open Market - cover both areas, but none could be described as having a strong product for each function. Broadvision, for example, had specialised in the development of systems that ensured customers got personalised delivery of content. In order to provide the other half of the equation, they acquired Interleaf. Vignette, however, is widely regarded as the better tool here. For business to consumer sites, in which a fulfilment system will be necessary to complement the suite, the best are, according to analyst Simon Pollard at AMR Research, Broadvision (again) Descartes and Yantra.
Further complication comes from the fact that although, in theory, all these e-business tools should be able to run on any application server, in practise there are compatibility issues. If you have gone to IBM for an application server, it's a good idea to run Vignette over it for commercial management.
Confused? You should be. There's been a rush to get into the content management niche. Document management companies are now re-branding themselves as Web-based content mangers, as are many Internet software suppliers who originally started out by delivering packaged e-commerce server solutions.
At every level of e-business suites there are some iffy suppliers. There is no single supplier that can offer a complete development, so portfolios of tools will have to be assembled. Small wonder that many companies are considering outsourcing rather than undertaking the painful task of integration. The problem with this is that it merely postpones the day when you have to integrate the e-business suite with your existing IT infrastructure.
Then again, you wouldn't want all your products from one supplier. "You can't source all of your e-business tools from one supplier. There are simply too many channels for customer interaction for any one supplier to supply the necessary depth and breadth of functionality," says Richard Neale, product marketing manager from Business Objects. There are initiatives to achieve standardisation of e-business tools. No magical solutions exist yet due to semantic data standards immaturity, but initiatives such as Biztalk, OAG and Rosettanet show promise.
Ultimately, however, it's a question of choosing a strategic partner and deployment will, as ever, belong to the large supplier.
It's a question of seeing which provider of e-business software snaps up the best tools (see box) and integrates them into their range.
The three keys to every e-business system
Content Management Tools
These provide services that make it easier to build and manage large, complex "content based" user interfaces. For example, the E-Business Review Web site changes regularly so managing the movement of new files and the archiving of the files they replace needs sophisticated tools if the process is to be efficiently managed.
The deployment platforms designed to make it easier to run applications. A bit like an operating system. Though these are supposed to be open (or "tool agnostic") so that any Web development tools can be used on them, many application servers ship with proprietary development tools.
The tools for e-commerce application management enable a business to identify whether the system is offering a good service (based on monitoring of, say, response time or transaction time) and then adapting the service (by say, load balancing servers) and optimising the quality of service. The problem being is that the vast majority of e-commerce application management tools can't do both functions.
Will E-business systems ever be able to talk to each other?
There are technical standards among suppliers, just as there are technical standards among telcos. But just as you can easily phone someone in Italy, but find yourself speaking a different language, so are data and applications hamstrung by the difference in communication. There are industry initiatives to address this:
Open Applications Group. A consortium of leading application developers and technical providers, attempting to define semantic data standards and a common language for application interoperability.
An organization set up to define and implement a common set of standards for e-business. RosettaNet is defining a common parts dictionary so that different companies can define the same product the same way. It is also defining up to 100 e-business transaction processes and standardizing them. Because RosettaNet is supported by all or most of the major companies in the IT industry, its standards are expected to be widely adopted.
An industry initiative headed by Microsoft to promote eXtensible Markup Language (XML) as the common data exchange language for e-commerce and application integration on the Internet. While not a standards body as such, the group is fostering a common XML message-passing architecture to tie systems together. BizTalk says that the growth of e-commerce requires businesses using different technologies to have a means to share data.
The Extensible Mark-Up Language is important as a language that can be used to define other Web languages. Mark-up languages like HTML use specific tags to give instructions about the way a Web page will look. With XML you can define your own tags that enable your software to tell other software what a particular piece of data means and what should be done with it. A specific set of XML definitions can be created for a vertical sector, such as the chemicals industry - enabling it to exchange industry specific data more fluently.
E-Business software suppliers - a few recommendations