Open rules for e-business

I went to J.C. Penney the other day to buy some socks, when the strangest thing happened. As I attempted to step through the store entrance, my foot went flying upward into my face, forcing me to do a back flip and land on the sidewalk. The J.C. Penney store manager, who happened to be walking by at the time, explained that I couldn't enter the store as long as I was wearing New Balance sneakers; the floor was compatible only with Nike.

Now, of course this didn't actually happen. It doesn't take a Harvard MBA to figure out how viable a business model this would be. There are very few reasons why businesses would be motivated to let arbitrary incompatibilities limit customer access. That's why Microsoft was never able to turn the Web into an exclusive club for Internet Explorer surfers, despite concerted efforts to do so. Users of other browsers also have money to spend, and everyone knows it.

Does this bit of self-evident wisdom translate into a truism for e-business, particularly business-to-business transactions? Not yet with an emphasis on the word yet. It's still perfectly reasonable to deliver proprietary solutions to large customers, or even to supply your large customers with a tool kit so they can build their own applications for doing e-business with you.

Eventually, however, many of you who rely on e-business are going to have to adopt a Web services approach in order to remain competitive. Fortunately, the economy is slowing the progress of this technology. You won't be left behind if you fail to rush into a Web services solution just for the sake of doing so. Besides, in most cases, you shouldn't let technology drive your business strategy anyway.

But neither should you risk allowing your company's short-term technology strategy to drive away potential customers in the long term. Whether you want to admit it or not, that's the most likely scenario.

Our culture, particularly in the U.S., is largely a reactive one. For example, many of us don't adopt and configure systems to make them immune to viruses. We buy antivirus software, and even then we usually wait until a nasty one eats last month's budget.

Our reactive U.S. culture has improved a bit since Sept. 11, although it's hard to miss the irony of a statement like that. Our sudden interest in being proactive is itself a reaction to the suggestion that we might have been able to avoid the tragedy. I'm not sure that's a well-founded theory, but I'm happy to see people taking an interest in being more forward-looking.

So let's apply this attitude to e-business, shall we? I can think of at least three rules to follow.

Rule No. 1: Keep an "open" mind. Even if your e-business strategy starts with one customer, I suspect that you won't want it to stay that way. If you build your technology around open standards, you're more likely to get that second customer. Even if you don't plan to open your business to millions of people with Web browsers, face the fact that proprietary solutions are on their way out and get with open standards and open source.

Rule No. 2: Ignore technology endorsements by large companies. There was a time when you could make business decisions based only on the fact that IBM and Microsoft announced a partnership. On second thought, considering what happened to OS/2, perhaps even that memory is an illusion. Regardless, forget what vendors say about e-business technologies and commit to open standards. Keep your eye on ebXML, for example (www.ebxml.org).

Rule No. 3: Hire that security guru now, before you build your e-business software infrastructure.It's not that you can't adapt to open e-business demands as an afterthought. FedEx is a poster child for wrapping complex, proprietary back-end software solutions with simple Web applications. But FedEx invests about $1.5 billion in IT each year. If you can match that kind of money, then by all means, make any decisions you like. You can afford to make strategic errors. If your budget is a bit smaller, however, it pays to plan ahead. I suggest you do so by making sure to keep an open mind while making plans for the future.

Nicholas Petreley is a computer consultant and author in Hayward, Calif. He can be reached at nicholas@petreley.com.

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