1999 Product of the Year: Technology Choices

Technology choices behind the e-commerce boomElectronic commerce moved into the mainstream spotlight in 1999, with a flood of dot-com companies showing up in the most everyday market spaces. But in the background of this hot activity, chief technology officers (CTOs) were busy making major technology moves to support these global-scale ventures.

These emerging e-commerce companies had several business goals in common: providing an around-the-clock online storefront, giving their customers enhanced service and support unlike what they can get in the brick-and-mortar world, and integrating all the points of access so that both customers and business partners get seamless interaction.

To accomplish these goals, CTOs sought technology choices that best supported the business models of their respective "e-companies." Technology drivers that were critical for e-commerce success this year included scalability and reliability of Web applications and architectures, application integration software, and customer service software and services.

"We had to make sure that whatever we put up could, number one, perform; and number two, that we could personalize it," says Chuck Dean, CTO at cozone.com, in Marlboro, Mass. "We had to be able to handle a bunch of traffic with some level of confidence that it could stay up and become a lot more customer-centric than we think our competitors are."

Dean adds that personalization is cozone.com's way of providing exceptional customer service that keeps visitors coming back -- and buying more. With BroadVision software as a foundation, Dean is also working with several experimental technologies and seeking products that can further enhance cozone.com's customer service functionality. Currently the site has launched two shopping assistants: one that uses technology from Insight Marketing (now owned by Silknet) to make recommendations based on a series of preset questions, and another that uses Artificial Life's "bot" technology to engage in a conversation with the customer and responds with answers and recommendations.

"It's really meeting your needs dynamically," Dean says. "It's fact-based personalization. What we're doing is taking a look at the facts -- what are people doing and what are they not doing -- and finding ways to make our offers geared toward their needs."

For the Shop At Home Network, a company whose original infrastructure was built to support transactions generated via television, the site technologies chosen had to extend beyond the new Web storefront to integrate seamlessly with the existing shopping processes.

"One of the reasons we chose the products that we did was because of the integration with the back end," says Wayne Lambert, who fills the roles of CTO, CIO, and executive vice president at Shop At Home, in Newport, Tenn. "We spent the better part of this year in this integration exercise. If you order an item from TV, call the 800 number, and place the order, you can then go to our Web site and see your order history, so everything's totally integrated."

In the business-to-business e-commerce arena, New York-based GoCargo.com provides an online hub for companies that buy and sell in the shipping industry. Because most of what GoCargo.com does is to provide a central online marketplace for business partners to meet and transact, application integration was critical.

"I think application servers become the differentiating technology," says Jim Galley, CTO at GoCargo.com. "We needed something beyond what you get at a standard auction site, because companies shipping a product may want to know a whole range of things [before making a bid]."

GoCargo is using MOAI's Live Exchange, but Galley says the company had to modify the core system considerably to meet its own needs, and it did so with the help of Context.

As these CTOs press forward, the business goals that are at the center of their technology choices will likely remain, but most will be -- and many already are -- experimenting with the next generation of e-commerce technologies to strengthen their e-commerce businesses.

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