Web sites are all very well for selling stuff, but consumers have to visit your site first before they find out what great deals you offer.
Not so at WHSmith. The book seller's online unit has been equipping users with an application that follows them around the Internet, popping up on screens whenever they visit Web sites of competitors, and cheekily suggesting they might pay less if they jumped to the WHSmith site.
This sales application, dubbed Net Angel by WHSmith, comes from the British software company Meltingpoint. It was launched to the general public last week under the name Mirazo after a short pilot with the bookseller.
Meltingpoint claims the software could be used, not just by retailers looking for Internet sales, but also in enterprise environments to bring together best-of-breed applications from several vendors into a single user interface.
Visitors to www.whsmith.co.uk register, giving basic demographic details, and download the 500k Net Angel application. It will sit invisibly in the background every time they log on to the Internet.
Each time they land on the Web site of one of the competing sites targeted by WHSmith, the application keeps watch on the pages being read and sends back information to Meltingpoint's server, which runs the Web pages through a rules-based system to decide whether Net Angel should respond. If the page contains information about a product WHSmith is also selling but at a lower price, the application might pop up a floating window to alert the user to this offer, and invite them to go to the relevant WHSmith sales page.
Rick Latham, managing director of WHSmith online, said the company does not disclose subscriber figures for the service, but claims the response has been encouraging.
"I view it like a piece of elastic, for grabbing people when they have moved off to another site and bringing them back to our site," he explains. Julian Graham-Rack, chief executive of Meltingpoint, said: "Normally, Web sites are static. Customers have to make the effort to go and find a site. We make customers static, and let Web sites move around them."
WHSmith first started talking to Meltingpoint a year ago, in December 1999. In January, the pair began development of the Net Angel application. The first version of the product was ready in May, and it has been broadly available to WHSmith customers since late September. The project cost less than £1m to complete, but WHSmith declined to be more specific on price.
What the user sees when Net Angel is activated is a Dynamic HTML window floating in front of the Web browser on the screen. The window is little bigger than a business card, containing text, links and images. It can be quickly turned off if the message is irrelevant. The client only works on Microsoft's Internet Explorer 5, so Netscape users are out of luck.
At the back end, the Net Angel client, which is an ActiveX control, intercepts in real time the URL requests entered by the user and sends them to the host NT server cluster at MeltingpointÕs offices. There the URL is checked against a database of 30 sites, mostly competitors, that WHSmith has programmed in. If the URL is not among these sites, the client remains invisible. If it is, the software springs into action at the server end.
Meltingpoint sends its Mirazo software, independently of the user, pelting off across the Internet to the page the user is reading. It grabs the content from the page. Meltingpoint has already analysed the HTML structure of the pages of all the chosen sites and holds that structure in a configuration file. By consulting that file, the software can quickly decide which pieces of the user's page contain which type of content.
If the user had landed on a page on the Amazon site referring to the book Lord of the Flies, Meltingpoint would know which section of the page contained the price of the book, which section contained information on availability, and which contained a book review. Configuration files are also updated.
Meltingpoint extracts relevant information and deposits it into a template made up by WHSmith. Depending on content, this could be text telling the user that the same book can be found £1 cheaper on the WHSmith site, or suggesting other books by the same author and giving hyperlinks to reviews of them on the WHSmith site, or holding information about how to buy the video of the book. The filled-in template is sent to the user, where it pops up on his screen. The whole process should take no more than a few seconds.
Similar applications to Mirazo are already available, but Meltingpoint claims its software allows retailers more control over messages they send to users.
Alexa, from a company of the same name, is a program developed in the US can follow users around sites, acting as a browsing companion to suggest other sites that may be of interest.
Autonomy also launched its Kenjin product to fanfare this March. It is deployed by Tesco.com, though it has failed to make an impact elsewhere. Kenjin sits at the bottom of the userÕs browser screen and, as they surf the Internet, suggests related topics and Web sites based on lateral relations between key words.
So, if a user was reading an article about BSE, it might bring up links to sites about pathology of prion diseases. Either of these programs could be adapted to the e-commerce purpose Melt-ingpoint envisages for its software. As this application is still in its early days, it is difficult to judge whether users will adopt it with glee, or view it as an unwelcome intrusion into surfing and turn it off.
Meltingpoint has another market in mind beyond
e-commerce. The company was spun out from the universities of Kent and Brunel in 1996, from a research project that attempted to find new ways of integrating heterogeneous applications without changing inherent structure. That could be achieved, the researchers realised, using HTML.
Peter Maude, chief technology officer at Melting-point, explained: ÒIf you wanted to pull together some best-of-breed enterprise applications, you could use Mirazo software to pull together different functionalities and present them in an integrated form, looking like a single user interface."
For example, take a document management system and a billing system. Each might hold information on a sales contact, but in different forms. Without integration, the user would have to jump between the document management system and the billing system to view all data. With Mirazo, both types of information could be presented in a single browser window. "Today, that integration requires complex and intrusive software. Our approach gives power of integration at an interface level," said Maude.
For this application, however, Meltingpoint's software would require quite a high degree of customisation at the back end.
Fiona Harvey is former editor of business technology bible PC Week and business Internet monthly Internet World. She now writes for the Financial Times