You may think that the name of the Internet-commerce game is getting consumers to buy online. Guess again.
If you've been following I-commerce you probably realise that it is in the business-to-business sphere where the overwhelming majority of I-commerce money is going to be made throughout the next five years. But "B-to-B" is not simply consumer commerce writ large.
In the B-to-B world, the name of the game is legacy integration: how well can you get disparate computer systems to talk to one another? If you don't get that basic point, you're not alone. Many I-commerce product vendors don't, either.
The whole point of B-to-B is automating transactions between disparate companies.
Ironically, most commerce product vendors have concentrated on facilitating consumer transactions, often with little or no attention to the back-end systems that drive that commerce.
Take, for example, Lotus' Domino.Merchant 2.0 Server Pack. It's a commerce application aimed at enabling small to midsize businesses to set up online storefronts -- yet it lacks any means of importing products or customer data into the Web storefronts it creates.
To set up a Domino.Merchant store you need to key in your products one at a time, using the Web-based data-entry screens provided.
Now, no matter how elegantly designed are your data-entry screens, typing in data that already exists in electronic form is an unacceptable waste of time. Even small businesses have legacy systems, though they may be modest Excel spreadsheets or QuickBooks files.
Too many I-commerce pioneers -- even at the enterprise level -- have launched their commerce sites with zero back-end integration, thanks to the paucity of tools available for automating this work.
These poor saps are reduced to printing the orders they take from their Web sites, then carrying the printouts over to an order-entry terminal where someone types them in. Something does not compute.
The problem with integrating legacy applications with one another is that there are so many of them -- and their implementations vary wildly from company to company. And, with a few exceptions (such as CrossWorlds Software, at http://www.crossworlds.com), there are few tools to automate the process. That means this kind of I-commerce job is often outsourced to a systems integrator or commerce-solutions provider.
Commerce product vendors that want to play in the B-to-B game need to back up their commerce products with significant levels of service, customisation, and support. And, most of all, they need to enable their products to easily plug in to a wide variety of back-end systems.
Meanwhile, if you are building a B-to-B infrastructure, keep an eye on the full range of systems that you will need to integrate into it. All of your business partners are potential Internet-commerce partners, which means that some day soon, their legacy systems may be your headache, too.