IBM unveils Websphere 5.1

IBM announced an updated version of its Websphere Commerce Business Edition including real-time collaboration and improved...

IBM announced an updated version of its Websphere Commerce Business Edition including real-time collaboration and improved capabilities for better management of e-business relationships, particularly in the business-to-business (B2B) market.

Version 5.1, according to company officials, is specifically designed for companies selling goods to other companies through a variety of automated processes.

Believing it to be one of the first e-commerce packages to offer collaboration and virtual teaming to B2B environments, IBM officials said Version 5.1 includes integrated versions of Lotus Sametime and Quickplace software, allowing buyers and suppliers to negotiate terms and discuss orders in real time.

Ed Harbour, IBM's director of Websphere Commerce, said of the new release: "What we have tried to do is take the fundamentals of successful business relationships and automated them for a B2B environment. We think this package sets the stage for users to strengthen their business relationships while reducing their operating costs."

Analysts were generally impressed with the new release, although some considered it to lack a few key ingredients. Shawn Willett, principal analyst at Current Analysis, said: "IBM hasn't had a B2B sell-side product, so this was much anticipated. They have a decent amount of features, but they don't have everything,"

While version 5.1 features a function for managing business relationships, Willett said, IBM should also have included the ability to manage business processes spanning multiple systems. "That is something they need to work on for the next version," he said.

He also noted that some smaller B2B players may beat IBM on feature sets, but Big Blue has the worldwide presence as well as globalisation with the new software in its corner.

Governing much of IBM's Web Application Server strategy going forward is an extensive survey the company conducted jointly with McKenna Research.

The survey queried "tens of thousands of small, medium, and large accounts worldwide" about how far along they were in implementing e-businesses. IBM said the majority were in one of five different stages of doing so.

Of the survey's respondents, 80% were in one of the first two phases, namely Web publishing and online transactions. Stages three and four involved integration, with the former concentrating on internal integration around an ERP system with the latter involving external integration. Only 15% of companies surveyed were in the integration phase. The fifth and final stage was the completed goal of being a "dynamic e-business using the Internet to full succeed in the digital economy".

Sandy Carter, IBM's Worldwide vice-president of Websphere marketing and channel execution, said: "This [report] is driving a lot of what we do around this announcement, that is to more aggressively move users into the integration and dynamic e-business phase of development."

Of chief executive officers surveyed, 93% deemed customer retention as their most critical success factor, with a focus on cost savings. With costs ranging anywhere from five to 10 times higher to gain a new customer than to keep a current one, and companies losing more than 50% of their customers every year, Carter said she thought Version 5.1 could help many users focus on realising these cost savings.

Included in the new IBM release is the Business Relationship Manager, which offers a browser-based interface to more easily configure and modify business policies and contracts. This would allow account managers without an IT department to customise catalogues, prices and terms and conditions for their organisation.

Version 5.1 also has the Enhanced B2B Store Model, a collection of templates and pre-established reports providing a production-ready sample store, which could reduce code maintenance by making the process of creating a store easier.

The English language developer's version for Windows is expected to be available on 30 November with support for other languages coming to market in early 2002.

The price for Version 5.1 is $125,000 (£85,376) per processor.

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