Microsoft left behind in grab for B2B exchange market

In the midst of an exhilarating e-commerce land grab, one software company is being left behind: Microsoft.

In the past month, established powerhouses like IBM and Oracle have won deals to provide database engines and applications for multiple exchanges. And relative newcomers like i2 Technologies, Ariba and Commerce One are integrating e-commerce features such as procurement and supply-chain management.

But Microsoft is nowhere in sight.

"From a marketing point of view, Ariba, Commerce One, i2 and Oracle have cornered the business-to-business market," Carl Lenz, a research analyst at Gartner Group, said.

And at this stage, Lenz noted, marketing is all there is. None of the announced exchanges are processing e-commerce transactions - indeed, the players are still sorting out their contracts and obligations.

Still, analysts said, Microsoft isn't a contender because it has neither complete nor appropriate product offerings - a problem sources attribute to the company's strong desktop and client/server legacy.

"What drives this space is applications," Laurie Orlov, research director at Forrester Research, commented. "Microsoft, in my view, has not made a very convincing play."

In addition, doubt about Microsoft's Windows 2000 platform centres on the operating system's scalability and reliability. "The number of servers that can run in parallel is limited to four, and Microsoft is nowhere near ‘five-nines'" reliability, according to Randal Chin, an equity analyst at Deutsche Banc Alex.

Oracle now claims three exchanges, and Ariba is providing procurement services to 50, he added.

"Microsoft is nowhere to be seen," Chin said.

Oracle, in contrast, offers a database engine, applications and ease of integration with third-party tools, such as those from i2 and Ariba.

"Ninety per cent of Ariba implementations are done on Oracle," Adil Khan, president of US-based Hencie Consulting Services, an Internet integration consultancy working on the Big Three automakers' exchange, said.

Chris Renner, president of online packaged-foods marketplace INC2inc Technologies in the US, said he selected Ariba's procurement tools for their "relative maturity" compared with other products.

Rich Niemiec, CEO of US-based firm, The Ultimate Software Consultants, said an Oracle-based exchange "implementation will be a lot less painful than you think. The [Oracle]8i database can do everything needed" and works with terabyte-size databases.

Bob Parker, an analyst at AMR Research, said: "If Oracle is the transaction backbone for the exchange, it is less likely that Microsoft technology will be involved," because Oracle applications integrate badly with Windows.

While Parker agreed that Microsoft hasn't been visible in the business-to-business space he said it may have time to catch up.

Becky Kaske, director of product industries at Microsoft, sees multiple roles for Microsoft technology in future exchanges.

The company can provide the base platform and draw in traffic by providing news feeds and links to Microsoft properties such as MSN.com. She said her company's involvement with Myplant.com, a Honeywell Web site, Healtheon/WebMD and the newly announced RetailEnterprise.com prove it can provide Internet marketplaces.

"I think it will be a battlefield," Parker said.

Oracle will be forced to better integrate with Windows, and Microsoft will need to be more open, too.

"The real winner will be the corporate user," he added.

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